By Ann Maxwell 

In an era where inclusivity is increasingly prioritised, why are individuals with learning disabilities still marginalised when it comes to air travel?

Despite numerous advancements, our most vulnerable continue to face significant challenges, underscoring a critical gap in the transportation sector.

As a mother of a son, Muir, aged 27, with Dravet Syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy, as a family we have experienced several traumatic episodes with airlines and at airports around the world.

The sunflower lanyard, introduced at Gatwick Airport in 2016, was a groundbreaking initiative aimed at supporting individuals with learning disabilities such as autism and dementia. Its adoption worldwide heralded a new era of awareness and assistance. However, the commercialisation and widespread use of the lanyard have diluted its original purpose, leaving many individuals without the necessary protections.

The reality remains stark: individuals with learning disabilities are often treated the same as those with physical disabilities, disregarding their unique cognitive needs. They are herded through airports, often placed in ambulatory vans and assistance vehicles for lift access and seated without consideration for their specific requirements. For instance, during a recent flight, my son Muir, who has learning disabilities, due to the late arrival and subsequent departure of his flight was not given priority seating, leading to unnecessary stress and trauma for himself, his carers and us as a family.

It's crucial to understand that the needs of those with learning disabilities differ significantly from those with physical disabilities. While they might require wheelchairs for mobility, their cognitive needs demand a more nuanced approach. They are typically accompanied by caregivers who are best suited to manage their needs, yet these caregivers often face systemic barriers in providing optimal support. Simple measures like allowing extra time, providing more space, and offering thoughtful consideration can make a profound difference.

An alarming trend has emerged where airlines, prioritising logistical convenience, request that disabled passengers be seated at the rear of the plane for easier lift access. This approach, while possibly beneficial for those with physical disabilities, can be detrimental for those with learning disabilities. These passengers often need to be seated at the front to minimise trauma and sensory overload, ensuring a safer and more comfortable journey.

The overarching priority should always be the safety and well-being of all passengers, including those with learning disabilities. Compromising their needs for the sake of expediency is unacceptable. Airports and airlines must adopt comprehensive policies that delay general boarding until these passengers are settled.

This practice mirrors the accommodations seen in supermarkets, cinemas, and play parks, which have created safe spaces to mitigate sensory overload.

It is imperative that airports and airlines take immediate action to address these issues, not only to comply with the Equalities Act but also to champion true inclusivity and compassion. Ensuring safe and equitable travel for individuals with learning disabilities is not just a legal obligation – it is a moral imperative.

Ann Maxwell, co-founder of the Muir Maxwell Trust