For many, airports and flying conjure feelings of stress around long security lines and possible unpleasant flights. However, for those with disabilities, there are immense added stressors that come with flying. In order to better address the complaints and needs of disabled Americans, Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 that demanded that airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) improve airport experiences for people with disabilities. Yet, three years later, airports continue to cause anxiety, humiliation, and, occasionally, injuries for those traveling with a disability.
This lack of response, adequate training, and adjustments of policies reflects a larger culture of inaccessibility and ignorance from those who are able-bodied. This culture of disrespect and ignorance towards those with disabilities has a widespread, detrimental impact, as 1 in 4 U.S. adults live with disabilities. These 61 million disabled Americans are subject to humiliating and often violating experiences in situations that tend to cause able bodied Americans little thought.
While security lines and pat downs are not always pleasant experiences, not only are security screenings not designed or equipped for those traveling with disabilities, but TSA agents often escalate situations by refusing to accommodate those with disabilities. Nathaniel Ross, a college student with several physical disabilities, described his apprehension of airports, “"Stepping into an airport, I feel a sense of anxiety wash over me, not about making my flight or finding my gate, but for my inevitable interaction with the TSA that will leave me feeling dehumanized and criminalized because of my disability." While traveling to a children’s hospital for treatment, bags of liquid that needed to be kept sterile and at a controlled temperature in a special container with ice packs, were opened, X-rayed, and extensively examined. Despite countless attempts from Ross and his mother to respect their medical needs, TSA agents scolded them and proceeded to give Ross an intrusive and “humiliating” pat down.
Ross’ experience has been echoed by Juniper Zayente, a college student with diabetes. While going through security she was ordered by the TSA to take off her pump that sends insulin to body and put it through the X-ray machine. Zayente tried to explain that radiation could damage the device yet was met with apathy and ignorance as the TSA agent responded that she “looked too young to be using an insulin pump.”
Zayente and Ross’ experiences are two of the many dehumanizing and humiliating experiences that many people with disabilities experience as they are at the mercy of TSA’s demands, no matter how degrading or medically dangerous they may be. Another aspect of TSA’s ignorance is shown through their TSA Cares program, which allows people to call in advance and be met by a trained airport agent who will escort those with disabilities through security. The program began in 2015 with 14,674 requests and four years later in 2019 requests had increased to 27,711. But the influx of requests has caused an increase in problems with the program, such as agents not meeting those who call.
The most common problem is wheelchairs or motorized scooters being lost, damaged, or destroyed in transit. This is especially glaring because mobility is the most common type of disability, affecting 1 in 7 adults. Dan Formento, an Army veteran, described losing a wheelchair as airlines “taking our legs away from us.” The loss of a wheelchair can be dangerous as one woman, Engracia Figueroa passed away due to complications from injuries she sustained after her wheelchair was destroyed by United Airlines. Framing these mistakes in such a powerful context demonstrates the complete inexcusability of these issues and the extreme urgency of righting these wrongs.
These experiences fueled by TSA agents and airlines’ inability to understand the needs of those with disabilities, disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Disabilities are more common among women, non-Hispanic American Indians and Alaska natives, adults with lower incomes, as well as adults living in the South Census region of the United States. Regardless of explicit discrimination, lack of accessibility in airports and policy adequately addressing the needs of disabled people has caused an increased negative impact to marginalized identities. The intersection of identities is connected to an increased likelihood of being subjugated to the humiliation and dread that comes with flying.
While Congress has made an important step in passing laws that seek to ensure the safety of those with disabilities, the actions of TSA agents and inability of airlines to act according to these laws only continue the pattern of disrespect. Going forward, airlines and airports must act with urgency and empathy to listen to the experiences of those with disabilities and adequately adjust their policies and actions. The humility, security, safety, and lives of disabled individuals are at risk if these issues are not solved. It is of the utmost importance that these issues be fixed in order to create an equitable flying experience for all.