When I reached the front of the airport security line, I’d halfway composed a tweet about how much I was dreading the Transportation Security Administration pat-down. The agent shouted out her request for assistance with a “Female opt-out!” and I cringed ― if my wheelchair didn’t already cause people to gawk at me, that loud announcement sure did.
As my fiance continued through the full-body scanner, I was herded through a side gate for the opt-out that I hadn’t actually opted into. I didn’t get a choice, though, because I’m a wheelchair user; I’ve been a wheelchair user for the past two years.
I’m as seasoned a traveler as they come. My dad is an airline pilot, so I’ve logged thousands of travel miles and hours in my lifetime. This means I’ve experienced what it’s like to travel both as a nondisabled, fully able-bodied person and as a disabled person who uses a wheelchair. The dichotomy between those experiences is disheartening and disturbing.
Take my recent travel experience, for example. The TSA agent failed to ask me if I had any painful or sensitive areas ― a question that agents had always asked me during the screening process and one I would’ve answered with a resounding “yes,” had she queried. I have hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a degenerative collagen disorder that causes my joints to dislocate easily and at random. That day, my shoulder was already dislocated, and possibly a rib, too.
The agent also didn’t ask if I wanted a private screening room ― another option agents typically offer before touching a passenger. Hordes of people streamed past us, furtively sneaking glances at me and averting their gaze if I caught their eye.
“I’ve experienced what it’s like to travel both as a nondisabled, fully able-bodied person and as a disabled person who uses a wheelchair.”
I held my arms out to the side and bit back tears as the agent ran the back of her hands over my breasts ― a stranger going to second base with me under the guise of security. She eventually ran her gloved hands along the insides of my thighs, pulling the waistband of my skin-tight leggings forward and dragging her hands along my stomach, supposedly to verify I wasn’t smuggling contraband onto the airplane.
The only other people in my life who are allowed to touch me this way are sexual partners and doctors. How would nondisabled people feel if they were required to let a stranger publicly cop a feel every time they traveled?
While examining the seat of my wheelchair, the TSA agent told me the stuffing felt weird; without asking, she dug her fingers into the velcro holding my seat together. I’d been polite up to this point, but the apparent need to dissect my chair was the last straw, and I barked out a protest. Three different agents examining my wheelchair (and my sore body) later, I was released. I wheeled over to my fiance, who had been surreptitiously recording the entire interaction on his phone, and burst into tears.
The frustration and humiliation disabled people experience during air travel doesn’t end at airport security. When I reached my gate that day, the agent pulled out a bright green claim tag to clip on to my wheelchair and told me he needed my signature. “CONDITIONAL ACCEPTANCE PLEASE READ CAREFULLY ACCEPTED AT CUSTOMER’S OWN RISK,” the green tag stated.
“Customer satisfaction is as important to travelers with disabilities as it is to nondisabled travelers.”
I was supposed to leave my chair in the airline’s hands to be returned to me upon arrival, but I balked. Airlines are notorious for damaging or even destroying wheelchairs and failing to provide replacements ― though they’re legally required to do so ― or stalling on replacing the damaged or destroyed chair. Between 2005 and 2015, damage complaints to airlines more than doubled to 30,289, and the number filed directly to the Government Accountability Office increased from 511 to 944.
Airlines operating in the U.S. were supposed to begin reporting lost or damaged wheelchairs or scooters in 2018, but the U.S. Transportation Department delayed implementation of the rule until 2019.
That it’s taken more than half a decade to even attempt to implement tracking standards on accessibility devices damaged by airlines is a perfect example of how little airline authorities seem to care about disabled people, especially since they’ve been successfully tracking lost luggage since at least 2007, if not longer.
My wheelchair cost more than $6,000. I had to fight with my insurance company for years before it was finally approved. I refused to sign that green tag.
Disabled travelers are allowed to preboard in accordance with the Air Carrier Access Act. Signed into existence in 1986, the act prohibits discrimination in air travel on the basis of disability and provides disabled passengers a number of protections during travel.
But planes aren’t always attached to the long jet bridges most of us are familiar with. I recently had to backtrack 10 gates to access an elevator that took me down to a beat-up white minivan that didn’t have any securement devices inside ― for my wheelchair or for myself. This, despite the fact the Department of Transportation requires wheelchair or mobility aid securement devices in addition to seat belts or shoulder harnesses. The van deposited me at the foot of a two-story ramp that was so steep I couldn’t wheel up it without my fiance’s assistance.
“How would nondisabled people feel if they were required to let a stranger publicly cop a feel every time they traveled?”
Disabled people aren’t home free once they make it onto the plane, either. Like many wheelchair users, I am someone who can sometimes walk, but nonambulatory wheelchair users must use transfer chairs specifically designed to fit the narrow row of the plane. Unsurprisingly, disabled passengers have experienced serious abuse during these transfers, and trying to access the bathroom while in flight can be a horrific experience. Last month, an airline employee’s loud exclamation of, “OH! … Alright,” when they saw me stand and walk the few steps to my seat was embarrassing enough I was sent a $50 voucher in apology.
And that humiliating TSA experience in the security line? “I did conduct an investigation into the incident in question and obtained statements from those involved as well as reviewed CCTV footage,” Miguel Benitez, a supervisory program specialist in customer service and logistics with the TSA and Chicago O’Hare International Airport, explained to me later over email.
“As far as the process itself is concerned, it appears that the officers conducted the screening properly … We give our officers a small measure of leeway ... if they feel some extra scrutiny is necessary in order to resolve any possible concerns they may have,” he wrote.
If what I experienced was a small measure of leeway, I hate to think what lots of leeway looks like.
The inaccessibility and ableism that plagues air travel is a reflection of the ableism everywhere else in our society. Back when I traveled as a nondisabled person, I didn’t run into any of the issues I now regularly experience as a disabled traveler.
We can and must do better. Benitez told me TSA offers a Passenger Support Specialist program to assist disabled passengers through checkpoints if requested 72 hours before their flight, but it was the first time I’ve heard of it. Disabled passengers must be made aware of these programs before we run into issues during the actual pat-down.
“The inaccessibility and ableism that plagues air travel is a reflection of the ableism everywhere else in our society.”
And the onus of ensuring such support is available must not fall on disabled travelers ― having to contact TSA three days in advance is an unnecessarily stringent requirement not forced upon nondisabled passengers.
An even better solution? Find actual disabled people working as agents to oversee the pat-down process.
Years of stalling isn’t acceptable when it comes to implementing a law that tracks airline damage to accessibility devices. If airlines can track lost luggage, they can absolutely compile statistics on wheelchairs and scooters. Information is the first step toward minimizing damage ― and improving the timetable on reimbursing disabled guests when damage does happen.
Customer satisfaction is as important to travelers with disabilities as it is to nondisabled travelers. Disabled people make up 20 percent of the U.S. population and 15 percent of the world population, and our money works just like that of our nondisabled counterparts. Ensuring the devices necessary to our existence aren’t destroyed (or are replaced if they are destroyed) would surely encourage disabled people to be more frequent flyers.
We have to make these airlines give a damn about disabled people. Sharing our horror stories is an important part of that process, but I’d love to see airlines and TSA focus on hiring more disabled workers. When nondisabled employees interact with disabled coworkers on a daily basis, they gain empathy and understanding. It’s a lot harder to be careless with a wheelchair at a departure gate when you know firsthand how it will affect a person’s life upon arrival.
Traveling is an amazing way to broaden your understanding and appreciation of everything our world has to offer, and we all deserve to experience takeoff and landing without pain and tears.
Ace Ratcliff lives with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, dysautonomia and mast cell activation syndrome, which all make for a particularly rebellious meatcage. Her advocacy is centered around intersectional feminism with a specific focus on disability rights.