North East town aims to be UK’s most inclusive place

First published: Tuesday 15 Jun 2021

Darlington, a town with a history of firsts, has been chosen as a pilot for a national project, aimed at providing safe spaces for people with non-obvious disabilities.

A safe town for everyone, any time

Hot on the heels of its Purple Flag status – meaning it’s one of the safest places to enjoy a night out – and the only NE town to have received this award, it now aims to be recognised as one of the most inclusive towns in the UK.

It will be the first ‘Sunflower friendly town’ in the north east, a term which indicates its commitment to recognising people with invisible disabilities.

The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Scheme helps support and raise awareness of those living with an invisible disability, and people are encouraged to wear a Sunflower lanyard designed to act as a discreet sign to others that they may need additional help.

Town Centre yarn bombed

As a clear mark of the town’s commitment to welcoming those with hidden disabilities, the town has been yarn bombed today (June 15).

Sunflowers, leaves, bees and butterflies have filled the streets and every bollard is covered in a knitted creation to create a bright, welcoming atmosphere to raise awareness of hidden disabilities and signpost Darlington as a town accessible to all.

Committed to being one of the UK's most inclusive town centres

Deputy Leader of Darlington Borough Council, Jonathan Dulston, said: “As we work towards our vision of being the UK’s most inclusive town, we’re proud to be taking a leading role in encouraging retailers and services on the high street to join the scheme and make clear to visitors that everyone is welcome here. Not all disabilities are visible and a subtle signal can make a big difference in providing confidence and reassurance to people which is why the Sunflower lanyards work so well.

“This is an incredibly important campaign and the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower pilot is another step we are taking as a town to be a safe, friendly place, building on our LGBTQ friendliness and Purple Flag status. Without visible evidence of an invisible disability, sympathy and understanding can often be in short supply, but we want to make change and are committed to being one of the country’s most accessible towns. We hope to give visitors the best possible experience when shopping.”

"Knowing Darlington is part of this scheme is amazing"

Sarah Oatley, owner of Drawn Threads, has been enlisted by Darlington Borough Council to create the knitted creations along with 120 volunteers. She, herself, has a non-obvious disability and knows how important the project is.

Ms Oatley said: “It's been an incredibly busy few months of knitting and so many people have gotten involved. I, myself, have a hidden disability - Psoriatic Arthritis - which is not visible but can still affect my everyday life. As someone who wants to feel like everyone else, knowing Darlington is part of this scheme is amazing. I can attest Darlington is such a wonderful place. I visited the Dolphin Centre last week for a swim and they were brilliant when I asked for a disabled changing room and I felt absolutely no judgment which is a credit to the town. We hope visitors enjoy the new look of the high street and it makes everyone smile.”

Shops have received special training

Nearly every shop in the town centre has received Hidden Disabilities Sunflower training by the council’s town centre team, with more set to be completed in the next few weeks.

Town centre partnership and events manager, Alex Nicholson, said: “There are many people in our community with invisible disabilities and by making a few small changes we can make our town a more welcoming place for them. Not all disabilities are visible – some are not immediately obvious, such as autism, chronic pain, dementia, anxiety or a visual impairment.

“People with hidden disabilities may struggle to do things that other people take for granted. Visiting shops can often be challenging – some people may not able to stand for long periods of time or might need urgent access to toilet facilities, and someone who is hard of hearing may need to lip read. Living with a non-obvious disability can make daily life more demanding for many people, and can be difficult for others to identify, acknowledge or understand the challenges.

“We will be offering Sunflower lanyards in stores across Darlington. By wearing the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower it discreetly indicates to people around you that you have an invisible disability and you may need additional support, help or more time. All of the businesses in Darlington are committed to being welcoming to everyone and we are ready to build on our successes and make Darlington different.”

Nearly 16% of people have a hidden disability

Stores in Darlington will display a window sticker which says that the Sunflower lanyard is recognised there, making it even easier for Sunflower wearers to seek out support.

The Office for National Statistics revealed in its 2011 Census that nearly 1 in 5 people in England and Wales have a disability that limits their daily activities. Hidden Disabilities Sunflower report that 80% of these people have a non-obvious disability. Locally, the Census showed that almost 20% of the population of Darlington have a limiting long-term illness. 

Cllr Dulston said: “These statistics show just how many people need our support and is why we want to be inclusive. We hope this offers help to shoppers with hidden disabilities and we continue to explore ways we can do more for visitors and their families. The recognisable green and yellow Sunflower lanyards are fast becoming globally recognised at airports, hospitals, shops and leisure facilities and we want to build on this.”

The initial concept originated at Gatwick Airport in 2016. Gatwick wanted to identify passengers with non-obvious disabilities to improve their customer journey. Since then it has been adopted globally by major airports and venues, and in the UK by many supermarkets, railway and coach stations, leisure facilities, the NHS, a number of police, fire and ambulance services, and an increasing number of small and large businesses and organisations, all of who commit to training their staff about invisible disabilities. Now Hidden Disabilities Sunflower are encouraging ‘Sunflower friendly destinations’ and Darlington is one of the first to pilot the scheme. 

Darlington offers a safe environment for Sunflower wearers

Paul White, CEO from Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, said: “We are delighted to welcome Darlington as one of the first Sunflower friendly towns in the UK. Sunflower wearers will now feel confident that understanding and patience will be offered whilst visiting Darlington. The sunflower is globally recognised and the beauty of the Sunflower is that it can be worn as and when required. Darlington have been an excellent pilot town and we are excited to see the program roll out there.”

A recent survey by Hidden Disabilities Sunflower found that over 90% of people would be more likely to visit a shop that recognises the Sunflower and up to 70% of those check whether a store supports the Sunflower before visiting them. 95% would recommend a shop that recognises the Sunflower.

Cllr Dulston said: “These stats make evident just how important it is for Darlington businesses to take this on board as we pave the way in becoming the first Sunflower friendly town in the region.”

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