November 21, 2019

Flying while Disabled post 9/11

A lot of people get upset about being subjected to an intrusive pat-down from TSA officers as part of airplane security if something unusual is detected during screening with advanced imaging technology (AIT)” or if they opt out of screening by AIT or walk-through metal detectors. As my 20-year-old daughter likes to say, “Welcome to my world!”

When the new security regulations came out post-9/11, I found myself subject to a full pat-down if I wanted to stay with our son Danny, who has cerebral palsy and other special needs and uses a large stroller in walking any long distances. Because he can’t walk independently through the metal detector, he is always subject to a pat-down, and since he would go into a full tantrum if left alone with a stranger, so am I. For the most part, the TSA officers are kind, and don’t subject Danny to much more than a friendly squeeze on his arms, back and legs, but I get the full treatment, standing around barefoot in an eagle-arm stance, blushing and trying not to engage in any eye contact with other passersby. The female officers doing the pat-down are always very professional, and tell me exactly what they are doing, trying to get it over as soon as possible. They don’t like it any more than I do.

And then there is always a flurry of activity around the liquid nutritional supplements that we bring along for Danny to drink; sometimes they are opened up and given a quick chemical test. I have to remember to tell the officers all the different places I’ve packed them away, so there’s no surprises in the x-ray machine. “We found two more bottles,” one overly energetic young female officer once yelled out.

But when we fly in or out of Israel, neither Danny nor I have to be subjected to this embarrassing ritual. We chat in English with the security guards who ask us about where we grew up in the United States and where we went to religious school. They glance at his many bottles of turbo-charged Boost or Ensure and send us on our way with a quick “Shalom”.

Believe me, I fully understand the need for security given the realities of our post 9/11 environment, but there’s got to be a better way for everyone concerned. Some critics say that the current security system spends too much time and money trying to find weapons instead of ferreting out terrorists. As a backgrounder report from the Council on Foreign Relations says, “One approach, called behavior pattern recognition (BPR), uses behavior clues to identify potential terrorists during passenger screening. Rafi Ron, former director of security at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport and now a security consultant working with the TSA to implement BPR programs at U.S. airports, says if BPR is widely implemented it will “add a very important security layer to our aviation [system].”

In the meantime, I prep Danny and myself before each airline trip. “The nice man is going to do a quick check, check, check,” I say to him, as I tickle him in the tummy. On our most recent trip east, Danny was even given a TSA sticker at the Philadelphia airport as a reward for staying calm during the now-common ritual. As for me, I am still working on not blushing.