By Amy Wolff

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed or wanted more patience, compassion or assistance from others? This is a common challenge for people with hidden disabilities. Often those impacted feel isolated and self-conscious about asking for help or special accommodations.

Hidden disabilities can include a host of afflictions that are not immediately obvious to observers, like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), cognitive and intellectual disabilities, PTSD, dementia or mobility issues, and speech, visual or hearing impairments. Hidden disabilities often do not have physical signs but living with these conditions can make daily life – especially travel – more challenging.

That is why Visit Mesa, the city’s destination-marketing organization, launched the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program, a customer-service program aimed at supporting the accessible travel market. While this is an international program, Mesa is the first U.S. destination to adopt the initiative. 

Mesa’s Commitment to Service and Travel

In November 2019, Mesa was named the first-ever Autism Certified City in the U.S., raising the profile of Arizona’s third-largest city to millions of individuals with autism and millions of travelers impacted by autism.

Every member of the Visit Mesa staff is a Certified Autism Travel Professional. The nearly year-long effort behind the Autism City designation was launched by Visit Mesa and fully embraced by leadership at Mesa Fire; Mesa Police; Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities; and the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, with all having achieved official autism certification.

To date, nearly 65 businesses in Mesa have participated in specialized autism training geared toward helping executives and front-facing hospitality and service staff recognize ASD and servicing the needs of ASD travelers from the planning stages of a vacation to when they arrive at the destination, and throughout their stay. Approximately 4,300 Mesa community members have completed or committed to the autism certification process, which is valid for two years.

As the country’s first autism-certified city, it makes sense that Mesa is the first U.S. travel destination to adopt Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, a program acclaimed for supporting travelers with special needs as a way to secure additional support they may require while traveling.

Visit Mesa is the first Arizona Visitor Center to offer the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyards and bracelets at no cost. When worn, the sunflower serves as a visual cue to trained industry staff throughout the city to recognize that the traveler, or traveler’s companion, may need additional support during their visit.

“Our journey to educate the masses about the needs of the ASD community have really only just begun,” said Visit Mesa President and CEO Marc Garcia, who ignited the effort after his seven-year-old son’s autism diagnosis.

“We’ve been waiting for families to be ready to travel safely again,” he added. “In response, we are launching several campaigns to remind guests on the spectrum that they have a welcoming destination in Mesa, ready to serve them on vacation. Our goal is to ensure all individuals and their families and friends enjoy a memorable vacation in Mesa. Inclusivity matters deeply to us and these efforts have been quickly embraced throughout our city.”

How does the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower work?

Developed and launched in the United Kingdom, the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower is a recognized icon that visitors can use to discreetly identify themselves as having a disability. Through identification by service representatives in the hospitality industry, accessible travelers can rest assured they will be given attention and support during their journeys.

The international hidden disabilities marker is a simple sunflower design on a green background. It is a subtle, discreet but visible sign to enable and engage various support staff members to identify that the wearer (or someone with them) may require extra help, time or assistance.

Since its launch in 2016, the sunflower designation has been adopted globally by major airports and venues. In the U.K., the program is recognized in supermarkets, railway and coach stations, leisure facilities, police, fire and ambulance services, and an increasing number of small and large businesses. The program has spread to U.S. airports recently, including Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, making it one of only 19 airports that have joined — or are in the process of joining — the global movement.

“When we learned about the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program and how widely accepted it is overseas, we knew we could deploy this in Mesa as a logical extension of our citywide autism certification,” said Alison Brooks, Director of Special Projects for Visit Mesa.

“We’ve already proven Mesa’s hospitality community is kind, caring and compassionate. This level of awareness in our destinations offers another layer of support for a special group of travelers. We hope to see the use of Visit Mesa’s Hidden Disabilities Sunflower extend into other areas of our community, to support visitors and residents alike,” Brooks added.

What Mesa visitors can expect from the Sunflower program

“The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program is a great tool for those who opt to use it,” said Michelle Streeter, Senior Vice President, Communications, Visit Mesa. “It’s a simple and subtle way for travelers to send non-verbal messages to service providers who need to know about hidden disabilities. This alerts staff members to potential accommodations and support without calling unnecessary attention to the guest in need.”

While wearing a hidden disabilities lanyard or bracelet does not give users special privileges per se, it does allow someone to discretely self-identify as a person who may need extra assistance, a bit of patience or more time from staff or colleagues.

“Our goal in Mesa is to welcome all visitors and reduce any unnecessary anxiety for those with hidden disabilities and their families or travel companions,” Streeter added. “Sunflower-marked lanyards and badges are purely voluntary; it doesn’t apply a label to anyone. By deploying this program in Mesa, we want to encourage travelers across the country to visit our city and communicate our sensitivity to making their experiences in Mesa enjoyable and stress-free.”

Mesa is recognized nationally as one of the most family-friendly communities in the United States. With that in mind, the city’s hotels and attractions are rolling out the red carpet to welcome travelers with hidden disabilities. Whether creating a work of art, panning for gold, or exploring the stunning desert landscape for the first time, Mesa offers a full-sensory experience for every family.

The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program has been adopted by several East Valley organizations including the Sheraton Mesa Hotel at Wrigleyville West, Holiday Inn & Suites Phoenix-Mesa/Chandler, Delta Hotels by Marriott Phoenix-Mesa, DoubleTree by Hilton Phoenix Mesa, i.d.e.a. Museum and the Arizona Museum of Natural History.

Visit Mesa’s Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program is also endorsed by COPA Health, one of Mesa’s longest-standing private nonprofit organizations dedicated to changing the lives of those with developmental, intellectual or behavioral challenges.

“Being part of the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program is another way for Visit Mesa to exemplify its dedication to disabled visitors and their families,” Streeter mentioned. “While in our city, if you spot someone who has chosen to wear the sunflower, please be patient, ask if you can offer assistance and above all, always be kind and show respect.”

Visit Mesa is also launching an online resource for accessible travelers planning trips to Mesa. The site www.AccessibleAz.com is full of travel-related links, as well as information and resources that are helpful for travelers to peruse prior to visiting the area. The complete list of locations to pick up a Sunflower lanyard or bracelet can be viewed found here, too. For a list of Certified Autism Centers go online to AutismTravelAz.com.

Amy Wolff is a freelance writer, public relations and communications specialist based in Phoenix, Ariz. She has a passion for sharing client success stories through written articles and broadcast media coverage. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Arizona State University. 

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