TSA’s disability and multicultural problem


In September the TSA website posted an announcement noting that the agency hosted nearly 40 disability and multicultural organizations and federal agencies at its 10th Annual Disability and Multicultural Coalition Conference‏ “to discuss advances in security screening and issues of concern to coalition members and their constituencies.”

The posting includes the standard public relations pablum and the TSA’s signature lip service to traveler rights but predictably falls short on substance. It elaborates that the “TSA continues to make notable improvements in how we train our employees” and that “We (TSA) are committed to the ongoing education of our workforce to accommodate the needs of travelers from disability and multicultural groups.”

Given a decade of input from various groups representing the elderly and those with disabilities and special needs, one would expect the TSA to have made some progress by now. But instead of making security screening better for this group, which represents a significant portion of the traveling public, the TSA has become increasingly hostile.

For instance, while the whole-body-imaging scanners might have improved things for those with metal joints, it has made things worse for those with medical devices, artificial limbs, prostheses, and physical abnormalities. In addition, the scanners continue to have a 54% false positive rate.

Since the rollout of the “enhanced” screening techniques on October 30, 2010, the number of complaints about TSA mistreatment has soared. Victims have ranged from children to the elderly and include the healthy and terminally ill alike. While the TSA claims to be considerate of passenger dignity, evidence indicates otherwise. A review of some of the more egregious incidents demonstrates a pattern of deceit and abuse that belies the agency’s public statements.

Perhaps the most troubling of all of the reports involves the repeated incidents of the TSA’s strip-searching of passengers, despite official statements and policies prohibiting such actions. In less than two years, there have been at least seven widely publicized reports of TSA strip-searches, all of them involving women. And these, of course, are only the cases we’ve found about. We have no way of knowing how often this actually happens.

In the most recent, a Texas woman, Melinda Deaton, claimed she was strip-searched by TSA agents while en route to the Mayo Clinic for treatment. The scanner showed a gastric tube. The TSA agents not only removed her clothes, they handled this implanted device, despite Deaton’s protests that doing so put her health at risk.

In a series of searches at JFK over Thanksgiving weekend in 2011, the agency went for the proverbial hat trick by strip-searching three women in less than 48 hours. The victims included Ruth Sherman, Lenore Zimmerman, and Linda Kallish. All three, one with a defibrillator, one with a colostomy bag, and the other with diabetes, say they were forced to disrobe in a private room.

In the case of the 88-year-old Sherman, she reported that she was made to “pull my underwear down” so that the TSA screener could check the bulge of her colostomy bag. For Lenore Zimmerman, things were even worse. During the search, the metal bar of her walker was banged against her leg, causing a gash from which blood then trickled.

In all three incidents the TSA claimed that “no improper strip searches were conducted – in that none of the women were improperly touched – and all standard protocols were followed.” The agency noted “all passengers must be carefully screened no matter how old or young they are to ensure no explosives end up on a plane.”

TSA recanted that statement and issued a half-apology, admitting only that the screeners hadn’t followed proper procedure but refusing to acknowledge that the victims had been violated. The agency still insisted that the women were not made to remove their clothes:

In an about-face, the feds have admitted wrongdoing in the cases of two elderly women who say they were strip-searched at Kennedy Airport by overzealous screeners.

Federal officials had initially insisted that all “screening procedures were followed” after Ruth Sherman, 89, and Lenore Zimmerman, 85, went public with separate accounts of humiliating strip searches. But in a letter obtained by the Daily News, the Homeland Security Department acknowledges that screeners violated standard practice in their treatment of the ailing octogenarians last November.

Sherman responded: “They asked me to pull my sweatpants down, and now they’re not telling you the truth.” Zimmerman also publicly rebutted the TSA statement, saying that her clothes were removed and accusing the TSA of lying.

In the cultural diversity department, the TSA demonstrated that no medical device is needed to qualify for a strip-search. In the case of Shoshana Hebshi, an Ohio housewife of Arab-Jewish descent, her flight was diverted on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 to Detroit. She, along with two Indian men who were also passengers, were removed from the plane in handcuffs, detained in a holding cell for four hours, strip-searched, and interrogated. Hebshi, who blogged about the event the next day, never received an explanation for her mistreatment.

In some cases people are strip-searched primarily because of their advanced age. In the case of Mary Gruning, age 97, she has no special medical needs or appliance but uses a wheelchair to aid her in moving through airports. On July 11, 2011, at Los Angeles International, she was taken to a back room and deprived of her wheelchair and cane while being strip-searched.

The TSA has harassed those with special needs and medical devices with a vengeance. The most egregious in that category is likely the incident involving Thomas Sawyer who gained attention in early 2011 after the TSA ruptured his urostomy bag, drenching him in urine. Despite a high-profile apology by TSA Administrator John Pistole and assurance that things would improve, Mr. Sawyer had a nearly identical experience less than a year later.

This isn’t the only incident involving ostomy devices. An 87-year-old widow, Rosemary Fecteau, was selected for a pat-down when the full body scanner detected her colostomy bag. The TSA screener, who claimed he had never heard of a colostomy bag, threatened Fecteau with a $10,000 fine and forced her to empty the contents onto a table in front of hundreds of horrified passengers. He then berated her: “Why didn’t you tell me the bag was full of crap?” (Editor’s Note: see comment below.)

The TSA’s response? The spokesman said that it appeared the TSA agent “acted appropriately.”

Not all victims are elderly; the TSA also abuses children whom it deems to be “suspiciously different.” In one case, Dina Frank, a 7-year-old with cerebral palsy, was aggressively searched and terrified by TSA screeners who couldn’t decide whether she had to remove her crutches and leg braces for inspection, leaving her unable to stand. After she was cleared at the checkpoint, the TSA approached her family to the gate and demanded that she return to the checkpoint for a second screening, causing them all to miss their flight.

An elderly man named Primo Meza was stopped by the TSA because his pacemaker set off an alarm. Meza uses an oxygen machine and the batteries have to be charged for it to work. The screening process took so long that the batteries were dying and needed to be charged. Despite repeated requests from his daughter, the TSA would not allow them to charge the unit. They ended up missing their flight.

Amputees have also been victimized. One young mother traveling with her child was forced to first remove her prosthetic leg and then remove the liner that protects the residual limb and put it through the x-ray belt in a dirty plastic tray. This treatment of the liner, which acts as a protective shield to contamination, put the woman at risk of infection while humiliating her by forcing her to expose an extremely intimate feature that she described as “on par with one’s genitals.”

Those with medical breast prostheses have been routinely humiliated. US Airways flight attendant, Cathy Bossi was forced to suffer daily humiliation by TSA procedures that required her to expose her mastectomy prosthetic. Alaska Representative and sexual abuse survivor Sharon Cissna gained national attention when she left Seattle airport and resorted to other means of transportation rather than be subjected to repeated and demeaning searches of her mastectomy prosthesis.

As if humiliating and denigrating those with physical conditions were not enough, the TSA even stoops to mistreating those with mental disabilities. A father traveling with his 29-year-old mentally disabled son, Drew Mandy, who has the mental capacity of a 2-year-old child, reported that the young man was harassed during screening. The screeners also confiscated a six-inch plastic toy hammer that the son carries with him as a kind of security blanket. In a rare display of common sense, TSA admitted that this was an “isolated case of bad judgment.”

As for medical devices, there are a plethora of reports of the TSA requiring removal of prostheses, and improperly handling and poking around in passenger’s most private appliances. In one case a teen girl’s $10,000 insulin pump was damaged after she was forced through a body scanner despite carrying her physician’s instructions stating that the device should not be exposed to scanner radiation.

Despite two years of repeated promises of improvement, endless TSA press releases touting “finds” on the x-ray belts, and tantalizing but empty promises of a supposedly “risk-based” Pre-Check program, Congressional Quarterly reports that things have not improved and may be nearing a critical point. The report sums up public and Congressional opinion, saying, in part, “the country may be entering a post-post-Sept. 11 era. Republicans in particular, who spent the past decade pumping up their security credentials, now view the TSA as a symbol of big government that needs to be reined in.”

Many travelers agree. The TSA has morphed into a gargantuan, unmanageable beast. It harbors criminals, and it issues so many ever-changing rules and invasive protocols that screening abuses are inevitable. When is Congress going to stop paying lip service to reining in this agency and actually do it?

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/gt8073a)

  • Bonnie Jean Rudolph

    These tsa agents brutalize the handicapped. This has happened to me many times. I have artificial knees and I always go thru the scanner and I am still molested and searched . I have abundant ID and the last time 1021 I had an agent make me unzip my blouse and she shoved her hand in to my breasts and hit my newly healed scars from my recent surgery {Gall bladder}She informed she wanted put her hands down my pants.. I refused and she yelled for her supervisor loudly I GUESS to humiliate me- My buttocks knees, chest and hair were searched. My cane, shoes, jacket, hat, and ID placard removed. A five minute internet search would tell all about me, that I am , , disabled US citizen with no criminal record, oh and I was also wanded.. I was molested- how many 63 yr old terrorists are there who are crippled? It is hard enough to even walk thru an airport without being muscled around, disrobed and assaulted. Shouldn’t there be a real suspicion of wrongdoing to be treated like this? Am I not presumed innocent until proven guilty? Guess not..TSA Thugs and criminals!

  • This woman’s surgical dressings were removed in public after she asked for privacy, and screeners also destroyed some of her medical supplies as she set off on her “end of life trip” to see her family for the last time: http://www.kboi2.com/news/local/173291181.html?tab=video&c=y

  • Another breast cancer survivor publicly humiliated and manhandled : http://www.kctv5.com/story/19771864/breast-cancer-survivor
    Please go comment on this story because the TSA screeners and apologists have been all over the site trying justify their disgusting harassment.

    • Sommer, wish I could, but they’re accepting only Facebook comments and I’m not on FB. Am urging everyone who is to go comment.

      • No Friend of TSA

        My comment critical of the TSA and the AFSers also disappeared.

        • For those not familiar with our beloved, wacky acronyms, “AFS” stands for “anything for safety.” Therefore, AFSers means people who believe, and often say, “anything for safety.”

  • sierraseven

    The “Rosemary Fecteau” incident is actually not true – the website cited is a satiric humor site.

    Please, check sources more carefully – you only damage your own credibility when you make errors like that.

    • sierrraseven, you’re right. As editor, I should’ve checked the source; I didn’t. I’m going to leave that paragraph there with a strikethrough so people know what we’re talking about. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

  • Daisiemae

    To carry further the comments about the viewpoint of physicians with regard to TSA manhandling passengers who have had surgery, I’d like to extend the conversation to xray technology professionals.

    I recently had my annual mammogram. I was chatting with the technician, and she told me about a trip she had recently taken. I asked her if she had gone through the scanner, and she said yes.

    I asker her if she was concerned about the untested machines that are not properly maintained and that are operated by untrained people. She got very defensive and said “I don’t know why people get so upset. I just don’t think about it.”

    This coming from a trained Xray professional! Needless to say, I was speechless at that point, and I dropped the subject. After all, there are none so blind as those who will not see…no matter what the evidence says.

  • jimlay

    TSA needs to install scanners at the exits to all TSA officer locker rooms; these scanners would detect stolen iPods…

  • Dazymae

    This is a masterful indictment.

  • LeeAnneClark

    This article brings me right back to my own assault at the hands of a brutal TSA screener due to a medical device. I was put through a humiliating and vicious double-screening (completely groped TWICE) in OKC because I was wearing a post-surgical back brace. After the first screener touched every single part of my body, she demanded that I remove my back brace and put it through the X-ray, which I refused on doctor’s orders. I had to have a supervisor then screen every part of my body yet AGAIN…and she was so vicious and brutal, pressing down so hard on my recent surgical wound that I ended up crying out in pain. She also aggressively manhandled my pubis such that I left the checkpoint shaking and in tears, feeling raped. And this whole time I was made to stand in a glass box, without the cane that I needed at the time due to my recent surgery, in full view of the traveling public as I was abused and sexually assaulted.

    And this is not the only time it’s happened. Now that I have metal in my spine, I set off the metal detector almost every time I fly, meaning I have to get the full treatment all over again. I don’t have the option of the body-scanner (not that I would go in it anyway, with my family history of cancer) – my local airport doesn’t have them. So for me, going on an airplane is a traumatic experience EVERY SINGLE TIME.

    For the TSA to say that they are doing anything to make things better for those of us who are disabled or have medical issues is beyond laughable. They make our lives so much more painful and difficult. In my case, I have to choose between allowing myself to be sexually molested, or never traveling at all – never going to see my family, missing out on reunions, weddings and funerals, never getting to take a vacation that I can’t drive to, declining business opportunities that involve travel.

    It’s sickening that our own government is doing this to us.

    • LeeAnne, and it’s doubly sickening that so many so-called citizens are on board with it.

      • TSAisTerrorism

        Not only “on board”, but ravenously supportive of it.

    • Dazymae

      A colleague of mine told me the same thing happened to her husband who was traveling after a hip replacement. TSA kept jabbing and prodding his surgical site. It was pretty horrific. He was in pain afterwards.

      She did not say whether they sexually molested him so I don’t know if they did that to him also.

      It seems to me that a lot of surgeries could be damaged or reversed by these aggressive assaults. Not to mention how painful it is for the victim having a surgery site pounded on by these ham handed fools.

      • You would think that physicians — and psychologists — would have made an official, public statement by now. But no. They’re just as clueless as the rest of the population.

        • TSAisTerrorism

          They are in denial.

          When I speak with colleagues it’s all, “What’s the big deal? Don’t you want to be safe?!?!!?!?!?!!”

          Physicians aren’t nearly as smart as society thinks they are. Remember, these are the same people who think it’s preventive medicine to shoot children up with neurotoxins. Don’t count on the AMA for support.

  • Hivewhacker

    Until I had it operated on, I had a medical issue that caused a lot of problems with the TSA folks (and quite a few customs agents as well).
    I had a hydrocele in my right testicle, and it was large enough to be obvious. EVERY TIME I went through security I was pulled aside, and I was required to drop my pants to prove that I wasn’t hiding something in there. On more than one occasion, I would be questioned by LEOs at the request of TSA agents, well after going through the checkpoint. One time I was by my departure gate, in a restaurant ordering a sandwich when I was surrounded by three LEOs wanting to know what was in my trousers- right there, in front of the entire restaurant, without saying a word, I dropped my pants- I didn’t drop my underwear- and amazingly enough, the LEOs apologized profusely, one of them stating that they were under TSA orders.

    • Law enforcement officers are lying if they say they’re “under TSA orders.” The TSA doesn’t have the power to order LEOs to do anything. The TSA isn’t law enforcement. Those guys were just being a**holes, trying to hide behind the TSA.

      But as we’ve seen time and time again, airport cops do the bidding of the TSA instead of protecting the rights of us, the citizens, as they are sworn to do.

  • cjr001

    They target you for disability. They target you for illness. They target you for religion. They target you for race, for sex, for age. They target you simply because they’re bored, because they’re on a a power trip, because our government and courts have given them the thumbs up to just about any damn thing they want to.

    In short, TSA has a “Treat everybody like a terrorist in waiting” problem.

    • Daisiemae

      Actually, a real terrorist wouldn’t be treated like this. When a person has actually committed a crime and is under arrest, the person under arrest has rights that can not be violated.

      We as innocent American citizens traveling about in our own country have (according to TSA and apparently Congress and the Courts agree with them) surrendered all rights by entering an airport.

      The terrorists are actually treated better than we are.

  • 1amWendy

    Strip search: check. False positive: check. Checking areas that do not alarm: check, check, double-check. Not one-offs: although I do not currently fly, since 2001 I have flown in/out of 21 airports and can safely state that this article accurately covers a pervasive pattern of assault against people with medical assistive devices. This link describes two months of my prior traveling life: http://tsanewsblog.com/586/news/tsa-abuse-has-been-going-on-for-years-heres-my-story/. I am not alone.