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By Selina Hurley on

Adding sunflowers to the collection

During the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have noticed people wearing a sunflower symbol on a green background on lanyards, badges, or face coverings. Curator Selina Hurley explains why we have added these sunflower symbols to our collection.

The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower is a symbol to signal that the wearer has a non-visible disability, impairment or long-term physical or mental health condition and may need more time, space, or support.

Launched in 2016, the Sunflower symbol was first used at Gatwick Airport to help make air-travel and navigating through busy airports more accessible. The scheme extended across businesses and the National Health Service, and since 2019 anyone has been able to purchase sunflower items online.

The sunflower was chosen as a ’sign which was still clearly visible from a distance as well as being distinctive, joyful, and dynamic. We chose a sunflower as it suggests happiness, positivity, strength as well as growth and confidence.’

The Science Museum Group has now added a range of sunflower items to its collection.

Lanyard with the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower design
Lanyard with the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower design

Many items in the Science Museum Group Collection focus on technologies related to some people’s experience of disability or living with impairments – hearing aids, prosthetic or artificial limbs, and wheelchairs.

Where possible, we collect testimony and people’s experiences and share these with permission. However, for many of the older items we care for, these stories are often lost and so we know little about how someone may have felt about, used, modified, or created items to help with their daily lives. As part of work to be Open for All, we continue to gather items and stories for our collection that represent many different lived experiences.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, the sunflower scheme took on additional significance. A range of ID cards were produced to give people a way of showing their exemption from wearing face coverings or to help others understand their needs, including social distancing.

"Can I help you" staff badge for business partners with a sunflower and the Hidden Disabilities logo
“Can I help you” staff badge for business partners with a sunflower and the Hidden Disabilities logo

Wearing a sunflower symbol is an individual choice. There is no requirement to declare any condition to the scheme or anyone else. However, there were concerns on social media that the sunflower symbol was being used by some to avoid complying with COVID-19 prevention measures.

For businesses and institutions that sign up to the scheme, training is available for staff to recognise the sunflower symbol and support people. Trained staff may also choose to wear a badge to signal that they are available to support or answer questions from the public.

Each month the scheme focuses on a specific condition to raise awareness, and a wide range of identity cards continue to be produced.

While popular for raising awareness about non-visible disabilities, impairments and long-term conditions, some people do not want to or feel uncomfortable wearing a symbol.

Liz Johnson, athlete, swimmer and founder of The Ability People, wrote in the Independent that more needs to be done to address the barriers facing disabled people and people living with impairments rather than asking them to wear a symbol:

‘Sunflower lanyards might work well for individual cases but it’s immensely worrying that our answer to exclusion is to “other” those whom society already devalues at every level. Making people display their difference shouldn’t be the answer.’

Collecting sunflower items is one small way to represent some people’s experiences. It also reflects part of the wider conversation about life as a disabled person and living with impairments. There is always more than one story to tell.

All museums in the Science Museum Group recognise the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower scheme. More information on accessibility is available on each museum website.