by Allan M. Friedman,Communications & Technical Assistance Manager
There was a time when flying was fun, simple, and easy to do. However, since 9/11, the heightened security measures enforced by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has made travel a nightmarish gauntlet for everyone, especially people with disabilities.
What I am referring to here is the assistive technology and durable medical equipment needed by travelers with disabilities. Your cane, your AAC device, your walker, your oxygen tank and just about any other AT is considered to be a potential threat until it is not. If you're taking an AT device with you and need it while on the plane, be prepared to demonstrate that your device will not bring down the aircraft and isn't a bomb. No matter what it is, they will inspect it, swipe it for traces of explosives and x-ray it before they even look at you!
For most travelers the security screening is just an annoying inconvenience, but people with disabilities face a more invasive and confusing process. The TSA has guidelines and rules for screening people with disabilities, but they often don't filter down to the agents doing the screenings so this process is rarely the same at any given airport. People with disabilities should prepare themselves for this experience and know from the get-go that they may need to know and assert their rights to ensure that their person and belongings are not violated.
The TSA has a webpage and phone service TSA Cares (1-855-787-2227) for travelers with disabilities.
Their recommendation is to call the TSA 72 hours or three days before your flight to ask about your individual situation and the devices you may need to bring with you. They also recommend calling your airline as well.
The airlines also have rules and guidelines for travelers with disabilities; however, there is no uniformity or consistency to them. Each airline has a different set of rules. And, as with the TSA, the frontline employees don't always know their company's rules for travelers with disabilities and their AT. Calling beforehand will help arm you with the knowledge you need to make sure you have the AT you need when traveling.
In addition to calling the TSA and your airline, I would add calling the airports you will be using. They too have their own guidelines and rules, which sometimes conflict with TSA and airline rules. For instance, you may be asked to check your wheelchair at the curb. If that’s your concern, rest assured, as you can’t be compelled to accept wheelchair assistance at the curb. In fact, under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), most wheelchair-users can remain in their own wheelchairs all the way to the door of the aircraft. The only exception is if your wheelchair has a spillable battery. In that case you must turn your wheelchair over to airline personnel at least one hour before the flight.
Security screenings for people with disabilities is just one of the challenges TSA agents face. More than 43,000 screeners must remember the rules while screening people with a diversity of disabilities; who bring along a myriad of devices, many that they are unfamiliar with. TSA agents must (but often don't) treat people with disabilities with sensitivity, care and respect while at the same time maintaining strict security standards.
It's a difficult job for them and a stressful experience for travelers with disabilities. Planning ahead, knowing your rights and what to expect will minimize the stress and ensure that you and your AT arrive at your destinations together.
Are you a person with a disability and have a story about traveling with your AT? Please enter it in the comment section below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org