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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Travel and Gross Inequities

At no point in my life is the discrimination against people with a disability more evident than when I use mass transportation. Buses, trains, and planes all present significant barriers. Legislation designed to enforce the rights of people with disabilities date back to the late 1970s and early 1980s yet access barriers remain the norm. In terms of mass transportation I believe the airline industry is by far the most discriminatory. The aviation industry has a long history of blatant violations against passengers with disabilities. Year after year major American airlines such as Northwest, Delta and United are fined for violating the civil rights of passengers with a disability. No commercial airline has been spared from vehement complaints levied by people with disabilities. Based on my experience people with disabilities, especially those such as myself that use a wheelchair, have good reason to complain. In fact when I travel by plane regardless of the carrier I feel as though I am going to war.

When I leave my home for the airport I assume I will encounter needless architectural barriers and blatant discrimination by airline employees. This is the norm and it starts in parking lots where handicapped parking is often full, curb cuts totally absent, blocked or located in the wrong place. When I get to the terminal elevators are often locked or located in obscure locations. Finding an airline employee or security guard that knows how to unlock or find a key to turn on an elevator is always an adventure. These problems arise at old and new airports. Thus by the time I get through security and to the gate I am already pissed off. There I will be greeted by a stressed out overburdened gate agent that considers me more work. I need a gate claim for my wheelchair and seat assignment as far forward as humanly possible. The FAA stipulates that on certain planes people with a disability such as mine are supposed to have access to the bulk head seat provided it is not an emergency row. This FAA regulation means little to the gate agent because many airlines charge extra for bulkhead seats or assign them to their best customers. Again, my request for a bulk head seat is simply more work, a hassle for the gate agent who will need to deal with another angry customer who was bumped from an existing seat assignment.

People that use a wheelchair and travel often know the above saga and litany of complaints are never easy to deal with. They are also the tip of an iceberg in terms of what can go wrong when one travels and uses a wheelchair. Those unfamiliar with disability related problems when traveling are always quick to point out that air travel for any person is not easy. This assessment is correct. Planes are normally full and passengers are squeezed in like sardines and herded like cattle. But passengers that have a disability cannot be herded like cattle and must follow a different path. This "special" path is never convenient and too often discriminatory. A case in point is the security line. Those that use a wheelchair cannot go through the metal detector for obvious reasons. The norm for people such as myself who uses a wheelchair is to be physically patted down by a TSA guard of the same sex. The thoroughness of this pat down ranges from cursory to a very serious search of one's body.

The scrutiny people that use a wheelchair are subjected to is about to get much more intense. The reason for this is that the TSA posted a story on its blog about a recent case in Los Angeles. Apparently a man that was using a wheelchair was caught trying to smuggle cocaine in two packages taped to his body. The TSA has always maintained that wheelchairs and other adaptive devices make smuggling easier. This case worries me because I think the TSA will use it as an excuse to ramp up its screening of all people with a disability. Elderly travelers have bitterly complained about excessive screening as have those that use a prosthesis or have an artificial joint. The TSA sees the case in question as a great victory, proof that anyone is a possible terrorist threat. The TSA blog points out that in Columbia circa 2005 a man that used a wheelchair was allowed to bypass metal detectors and was not patted down. This man and his son tried to hijack a plane with two hand grenades.

So, beware of the TSA. Be forewarned all old ladies and men, wheelchair users, and anyone else that cannot navigate their way through an airport metal detector. You may be a terrorist and as such you will be searched. You will be subject to a close physical inspection and patted down whether you like it or not. Please don't misconstrue my words: I am not opposed to security or the TSA. Indeed, I think most TSA guards are courteous and professional but understandably firm. They have a job to do and I think the TSA needs to be aware that by the time a person with a physical disability gets to the security line they have already encountered needless barriers. The TSA need not add to the pressure associated with traveling by singling out people that use adaptive devices. The airline industry has already made travel difficult enough, the TSA does not need tp add yet another barrier.