For disabled fliers, TSA adds insult to injury

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By Christopher Elliott

If you thought the TSA’s reputation as America’s worst federal agency couldn’t get any worse — and after its recent PR disasters, I wouldn’t blame you — you might want to think again.

Last week provided fresh evidence that the public assigned to their protection is increasingly reviling our airport screeners, who are working even harder.

Both incidents involve young passengers with disabilities. The first one happened to a young deaf passenger traveling to a conference in Louisville. He alleges agents belittled him (I can’t repeat the exact words they allegedly used), stole his candy, and devoured it in front of him.

Controversy surrounding TSA screening incidents

The second incident involves a TSA agent screening a cancer patient on his way to Disneyland and inspecting his prosthetic leg. A photo of the search provoked widespread outrage. My colleague Lisa Simeone covered the fallout on the watchdog site TSA News.

The TSA issued a statement on its blog, denying that they mistreated the deaf passenger. It said it had the pictures to disprove it.

“After a review of the video, TSA found no footage that matches the information in the blog post, such as Officers removing food during any bag search and eating it, or anything to indicate that they were pointing at and ridiculing a passenger,” it said.

The deaf passenger who wrote a blog post has since removed it and asked other media outlets to unpublish the article.

The TSA’s diminishing credibility

TSA hasn’t commented on the photo of the child being screened. It doesn’t really have to. No one seems to care what the agency has to say anymore.

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Was that a doctored photo? Was the deaf passenger harassed by agents? What does it matter? They just wouldn’t put anything past the TSA.

Just in case you’re one of the three readers who are still concerned with the facts, here are a few to chew on. The TSA has a long history of targeting the disabled, as I documented in a post last year.

Since then, it has targeted the most defenseless air travelers.

In May, radio host Laura Ingraham reported that TSA agents at Baltimore-Washington International Airport gave a very thorough once-over to a legless Afghanistan war veteran. Our vets, she added, “deserve better.” (She’s right.)

Controversial TSA screening practices targeting disabled passengers

A few weeks before, it aggressively screened a 7-year-old female passenger with cerebral palsy, causing her family to miss their flight. The girl, Dina Frank, was waiting to board a flight departing from JFK Airport in New York to Florida. Agents insisted on conducting a thorough search of her and her crutches — this was at the gate, after the girl had already gone through security at the checkpoint.

Elderly passengers with mobility challenges are also a favorite target. Just a few days before they went after the disabled girl, a passenger flying out of Palm Beach International Airport claims agents refused to let her walk through a magnetometer and gave her an invasive pat-down.

Her crime? Using a cane

I experienced inappropriate groping in all strategic areas, with hands placed down my pants in a manner I never imagined possible for a middle-aged woman with a cane,” she wrote on a consumer complaint site. “The point was very clear; to punish and retaliate against me because I opted out of the non-metal scanner.”

When it comes to the way TSA treats disabled travelers, is any horror story true until proven otherwise? I can’t fault the flying public for thinking so. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

To the agency’s credit, it has changed the way it screens some passengers as a result of recent complaints. A few months ago, the TSA declared that passengers 75 and over could keep their shoes and light jackets on at the screening area. But to many critics, the agency just created yet another class of “special” passenger, which some disability advocates find offensive. Their goal is to be treated like everyone else — no better, no worse.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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