In light of the foiled terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam, and the heightened airport security measures that followed, one wonders how this would affect people with disabilities traveling through our nation’s airports.
Let’s face it – flying can be stressful, particularly for people with disabilities. Getting through airport security can be daunting, and being transferred from a wheelchair to an aisle chair can be downright frightening especially if airline personnel aren’t following directions, or can’t understand the person due to speech impairments. If mobility aids or equipment is damaged or lost, it’s more than an inconvenience – it can be a life-threatening matter!
Now, add heightened security due to terror alerts to the mix and the fact that according to Gary Smith, a Contact Center agent with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), more Behavior Detection Officers are being added at certain airports. For people with intellectual or mental health disabilities, brain injury, autism, or Tourette’s syndrome, this can be a disaster if not handled properly. Why? Because the very nature of these disabilities means that some folks behave in ways that are considered “suspicious” to these, or other TSA officers, and airport security. Also factor in seeing bomb sniffing dogs, the occasional military personnel with their M-16 (oh yes, I’ve seen them!), and extremely close scrutiny of wheelchairs and medical equipment, causing an extended time in security checkpoints, and what do you get? A good number of people with disabilities who are frightened and on edge.
The Transportation Security Administration maintains that it is very sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities, and has worked with disability groups and organizations to address their concerns. It has incorporated these issues and concerns into airport operations.
Since they are impossible to discern, it is advised, but not required that people with hidden disabilities let TSA officers at security checkpoints know about the disability and if fear and stress are exacerbating their condition. They can ensure that these folks get through security as quickly as possible to minimize stress, and can call on a supervisor to help out, if needed.
Disability-related items and equipment are still allowed through security checkpoints, and TSA officers are trained to recognize most of them. Some, such as walkers, crutches, and canes are required to undergo x-ray screening while wheelchairs, scooters, collapsible white canes (used by people who are blind or visually impaired), and augmentation devices attached to a wheelchair (such as talk boards and speech machines) are subjected to a visual inspection and an explosives trace scan. Medications, including liquids, gels, and aerosols are also allowed, but must pass inspection either via the x-ray machine, or visual inspection. Liquid medications and supplies more than 3.4 ounces in volume must be declared and kept separate from other items going through x-ray inspection.
TSA officers have been trained to treat people with disabilities with dignity, equity and respect, so even during periods of heightened security due to terror alerts, there shouldn’t be any added problems. However, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be incidents that are upsetting. If anyone with a disability feels that he or she has been mistreated or discriminated against, they may request to speak to a supervisor and file a complaint.
Remember though, that everyone is jumpy now, including Transportation Security Administration officers and airport security staff. If you are traveling with a person with an intellectual disability, brain injury, autism, or mental health disability, make sure that he or she understands what is going on, and knows what to expect. If you are a person with a disability traveling alone, try to be patient, cooperative and positive. It just might make a difference.
Smith, Gary, Personal Interview. December, 26, 2009
Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Conditions. Retrieved December 26, 2009 from http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/specialneeds/index.shtm