Last week brought me to Washington, D.C. to speak at a conference for the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) about improving their airport screening processes for people with limb loss. With what started as a letter to the Amputee Coalition and to AOPA, resulted in me being personally invited to speak at TSA’s conferences and in TSA removing CastScope screening devices at every U.S. airport-the very objects that initially ignited me to write this letter. Now, four years later, I am humbled and honored to know my words brought attention to an unjust issue and ultimately improved the experiences of people. So, here’s to advocating for the good; believing that goodness will prevail; and accepting opportunities to share your voice.
All: Since I don’t know how to best get the message across, I am sending this email to all in the hope that its message can somehow be disseminated. Last Friday while departing from the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, I experienced one of the worst TSA experiences of my life and hope that sharing it prevents others from being in the same situation. I have been an amputee for 34 years and am a frequent air traveler, both domestically and internationally. In my customary manner of approaching TSA check-points, I told the TSA representative about my prosthetic limb, entered the first check-point, waited in the holding area until a female TSA agent was available for the additional screening, and removed my non-prosthetic shoe when seated. When asked by the female agent as to why I did not remove my shoes when going through the initial check-point, I informed her about my prosthetic leg and that walking on tile floors without shoes was difficult because of their slippery surface and potentially put me at risk of falling. She raised her voice, changed her tone, and said, “Listen to me. I will tell you to remove your shoe when I am ready.” She proceeded to tell me about the necessity to wand me, run a test on my “prosthetic”, and pat-down any areas triggering an alarm. After the gas chromatographer alarmed, she asked her supervisor to come to the area and proceeded to tell the supervisor about the sequence of events. Though their backs were turned, they were within hearing distance and I heard the supervisor say that the machine likely alarmed since they failed to conduct the device quality assurance check that morning. Nonetheless, three people returned to where I was sitting and informed me that I would have to undergo an “x-ray” because “something” caused the machine to alarm. When I asked about the type of x-ray, what it was, the reason for it, and how long it would take, the supervisor informed me that they employ a device called CastScope. Though I was not informed about its functionality at the time, I have since learned that the TSA has started using CastScope devices in certain airports as a means of better visualizing the internal components and chambers of prosthetic devices (http://www.tsa.gov/approach/tech/castscope.shtm). Again, I asked if having a prosthetic limb precipitated the necessity for undergoing this testing and was informed that all persons with prosthetic limbs are required to do this. As I had flown out of the same airport only five weeks earlier, I asked how long the device had been in place and was told that this airport has used CastScope for nearly six months and that I should expect to undergo the testing with all future travel. Finally, I was told that signage about the device and procedure is posted on the outside of the TSA screening area.
Without being told where I was going or that I could have my husband accompany me, I was led to a small room containing the device with two of the female agents. In the room, I was told to stand by the “x-ray” so they could take what turned out to be a series of 10 images. When I asked about the amount of exposure to radiation, whether I would be offered a lead apron to protect my nonprosthetic side, and why I hadn’t been asked about pregnancy status, one agent responded that “pregnant women work here and use the device all the time.” While my questions were obviously irritating the two agents, I explained that I was trying to understand my risks and wanted to better understand what I was about to undergo. They told me to stand atop 5 or 6 un-secured, stacked storage bins that were face down on the carpet, and without a safety rail. After seeing its instability, I told them I could not stand on the box and was offered a seat. After approximately 15 minutes of being scanned by the device that continually bumped my nonprosthetic knee, shin, and foot, I was told I could go. When I asked about the images and the privacy thereof, I was informed that they were instantaneously destroyed, yet I saw no evidence of that occurring. During the course of the scanning, one of the agents said, “For all I know, you could be hiding explosives in your toothpaste or in your prosthetic” and this is how “we make sure your plane won’t go down”.
While I consider myself a seasoned amputee, Friday’s experience brought me to tears for the inequity that I experienced because of having a prosthetic leg. For this reason, I am compelled to share this story and to be the voice of what others may have experienced but did not know how to tell it or describe how it felt. Now, through the objectivity that only time affords, I can better see how the entire experience illustrates the potential physical risks that people are being exposed to and the disrespectful manner in which people are being treated. While I was able to raise my concerns and refuse to stand on inverted plastic boxes, I could not help thinking about elderly persons whose risk of falls is magnified by the use of their prosthetic devices or are silenced because of fear of reprisal. Though I knew that I could not verbally defend myself against the TSA agents’ defamatory statements, I knew that I would not let the situation stand since my inaction only leads to the perpetuation of inappropriate behavior and comments. As a frequent air traveler, I respect the work of the TSA to promote safety and always comply with their screening efforts. It is for this reason that I hope that this situation raises the issues as a means of solving them in a manner that is both sensitive to amputees and safe for the general public. Thank you.