NEWARK, N.J. — For air passengers already fed up with being hauled off to the side of the security line for a pat-down or facing aggressive questions about bulky clothing or odd items in their luggage, advocates for the disabled have this to say: Welcome to our lives.
For the disabled and infirmed — many forced to go through security lines in wheelchairs with ample hiding places for contraband, wearing prosthetic limbs that could harbor drugs or explosives or lugging oxygen tanks that could really contain god-knows-what — the added discomfort and inconvenience that many travelers are now experiencing is something they’ve put up with for years.
“I didn’t mind; it wasn’t really that bad,” 89-year-old Marquerite Aswad, who uses a wheelchair, said Tuesday after arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport from Fort Myers, Fla. “It was a lady, and she didn’t pat me very hard. She said, ’You look like a nice woman; I don’t think you’re hiding anything in there.”’
Since the new airport security screening procedures began Nov. 1, stories of travelers with disabilities or medical conditions being humiliated, perhaps inadvertently, by Transportation Security Administration agents have made headlines: A bladder cancer survivor from Michigan had to board a plane covered in urine after agents tore open his urostomy bag during a pat-down; a flight attendant and breast cancer survivor in North Carolina said she was ordered to expose her prosthetic breast to two TSA staffers.
Those highly publicized confrontations appear to be the exception, not the rule, and advocates say they have not heard an outcry from disabled travelers, who are used to intrusions and in fact view the new rules as a teachable moment.
“It’s just one more thing for people with disabilities to think about when they’re flying,” said Phyllis Guinivan, of Wilmington, Del., whose 23-year-old son has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. “The fact that the general public is going through this may help their understanding of the kind of barriers people with disabilities face every day.”
Matthew Albuquerque, vice president of Next Step Orthotics and Prosthetics in Manchester, N.H., said that even before the new procedures, his clients often were asked to remove their prosthetic limbs. He said he has been hearing horror stories since security was increased after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Imagine being forced to take part of your body off and put it off to the side and hop over to someone to be patted down. This has been going on in the disabled community for a long time,” he said. “If there’s anything I’m glad about with the current circumstances, it’s that it’s brought a light and awareness to the whole thing.”
Screeners have never been told to ask travelers to remove a prosthesis, but travelers sometimes do so without being asked because they think it’s required, TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said.
According to security protocols listed on its website, the TSA assures travelers its agents “will not ask nor require you to remove your prosthetic device, cast, or support brace.”
Screeners are authorized to conduct an explosive trace sampling on a prosthesis that could require a traveler to lift or raise some clothing; travelers can request a private screening, which TSA says it “will make every effort” to have conducted by two agents of the same sex as the traveler.
For Guinivan, speaking to The Associated Press by phone from her home, the concern for her son goes beyond pat-downs to worries that his wheelchair may get damaged or that he will have trouble sitting between two passengers on the flight.
“Our expectation when we fly is to be prepared for uncomfortable situations,” she said. “A lot of the things people with disabilities experience every day, the general public is now having to deal with.”
Eric Lipp, a partial paraplegic, said he had no problems when he recently took four flights over two days, though he definitely noticed the pat-down he received was more aggressive.
Lipp, executive director of the Open Doors Organization, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that focuses on accessibility in travel and tourism, said that TSA agents should get more training in how to treat people with disabilities in a respectful manner, but that he does not object to the new policies.
“It might be a little more intrusive now,” Lipp said, “but it’s expected.”