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Humiliation and intimidation of amputees by TSA

Posted Apr 09 2010 10:47am
I travel by plane almost once per week. So you can imagine that not only do I have a lot of experience going through security but I frequently tell the agent what the next step in the process is. And its all fairly routine and clean albeit a bit of a hassle and time-consuming. But even when it all goes well, those of us with artificial body parts, still have to be subjected to some pretty invasive procedures.

First I set off the alarm in the metal detector. Nowadays they don't ask why I set it off, they just gesture to send me off to a special waiting area. I have waited there for 10 minutes and more sometimes. Then a male -- only male -- agent has to come get me and take me to a special screening area. He also has to gather my stuff off the conveyer belt. By the way, I can only take the shoe off my real foot so I am not walking all that great with one shoe on and the other off. Once I sit down they have to wand my real leg. Sometimes the agent asks me to lift the prosthetic leg but its hard cold metal so that is not happening. At this point I do finally confess that it is a prosthetic. Then they have me stand up and get wanded with the beepy thing which beeps a lot on my right side. Then they do the pat down. Getting felt up by a guy is not great. Its especially not great when they run the backs of their hands down either side of your crotch. Sure you can get a private screening but who has time for that. So I just grin and bear it. Finally they have to use the swabs to check for bomb residue (or to see if you recently walked through any fertilizer on your grass) which they swab across my shoe I did not take off and across my palms. When that says clear I am released to put myself back together. That is how it has gone almost without exception for the past 3 years representing probably 75 trips or 150 times through security. But that is not how it went yesterday at Dulles in Washington.

I want to acknowledge that the Amputee Coalition of America which I am a member of has this issue as one of its hot buttons and it has worked hard to make the TSA procedures for amputees less humiliating and intimidating and I believe I saw the effects of their efforts over the past 3 years. That is why yesterday was so shocking and upsetting. It seems TSA has taken a huge and unfortunate backwards step when it comes to treating amputees and the disabled with the respect they deserve.

It all started normally. A young kid was the "officer" doing the screening. I knew something was up when he did the pat down like he was considering it a vertical deep tissue massage session. He had me shaking and baking as he massaged leg, arms, back, and then even buttocks. His pat down of the crotch was something I don't want to think about much less write here about. And then he said he needed to see the top of the prosthesis. I said firmly that he most certainly did not. He insisted and offered the private screening. Here is where I draw the line.

I understand their job is safety of the traveling public. And if they are nervous about something they have to investigate. But there is a risk that they miss something in each and every person they let through. Amputees do not have a different risk profile. Maybe they have a lower one but I have no data on that. But standing out there in public we already are getting this embarrassing man-handling and now they wanted me to pull down my pants. I refused to go to the private screening because a) I know the policy for amputees and they were out of line, and b) I needed to make a statement that this is not respectful treatment of people who have done nothing wrong. I would actually like them to stop and think that every amputee has already been through a lot in just becoming an amputee and has to put up with a lot of extra hassle through security anyway and this insistence on seeing the whole prosthesis to me was the straw that broke the camels back.

He called for his supervisor who looked like Kojak. Scary guy. Insisted his young jedi agent was right and I had to do what he asked. I said go higher and find the most senior TSA person there. I was certain that person would know the rules. That person took a full 20 min to find. Meanwhile everyone coming through the line behind me was looking sideways at me like I must be a bad dude that they sure hope is not on their plane. At least 6 TSA agents were lurking around me and pretty soon I got the fun surprise that they have called the local cops on me as well.

Finally Mr. David Baron showed up. He was the most senior TSA agent there. And he started to lecture me on safety and their mission. I actually kind of liked this guy but I had a point to make and he refused to listen to my point. He kept going back to his lecture saying that his agent had a right to not pass me through if he suspected something. I kept very calm but I was getting really pissed. But if this was the most senior guy I had really no recourse but to do the private screening or I risked not going home at all.

The cops stood by. The six or seven very nervous looking TSA agents stood by. And about 50,000 passengers who passed through while I was detained all made their furtive glances and then kept right on going to their planes. Meanwhile I went off to the private screening. Once there Mr. Baron suggested I try to pull my pants leg *up* as high as I could which is pretty high. They could then see above the computer knee and a couple of inches of the socket. And they suddenly decided that was enough. I don't know if it was because they could now see there were no storage compartments for knives, guns or bombs or if it was because they had "won" and now they felt like I must not be a terrorist. But I am rip-shit that this is how we are going to treat very responsible innocent people who happen to have a metallic artificial body part.

I hope Mr. David Baron at the Dulles airport who is responsible for training these agents does a whole lot better job at that from now on. He should be ashamed of yesterday's performance and how this reflects on an agency that is critical to public safety but has a role in public respect as well. In that role they failed miserably yesterday.
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