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)