Thursday, August 10, 2006

Blue lily: Terrorism, airport security and the disabled

I haven't flown anywhere since before 9/11 and I've never flown internationally, but I suspect air travel for the disabled using power chairs (and ventilators) is much more complicated now than it ever was before. Especially today with the security crackdown due to information in the UK of a terror plot.

Currently, no carry-on luggage is being allowed except a single clear plastic bag per passenger. According to the BBC, this is what's allowed in that plastic bag:
  • Pocket-size wallets and pocket-size purses plus contents (for example money, credit cards, identity cards etc (not handbags
  • Travel documents essential for the journey (for example passports and travel tickets)

  • Prescription medicines and medical items sufficient and essential for the flight (eg, diabetic kit), except in liquid form unless verified as authentic

  • Spectacles and sunglasses, without cases

  • Contact lens holders, without bottles of solution

  • For those travelling with an infant: baby food, milk (the contents of each bottle must be tasted by the accompanying passenger) and sanitary items sufficient and essential for the flight (nappies, wipes, creams and nappy disposal bags)

  • Female sanitary items sufficient and essential for the flight, if unboxed (eg tampons, pads, towels and wipes)

  • Tissues (unboxed) and/or handkerchiefs

  • Keys (but no electrical key fobs). All passengers must be hand searched, and their footwear and all the items they are carrying must be X-ray screened.

  • Pushchairs and walking aids must be X-ray screened, and only airport-provided wheelchairs may pass through the screening point.

    In addition to the above, all passengers boarding flights to the USA and all the items they are carrying, including those acquired after the central screening point, must be subjected to secondary search at the boarding gate.

    Did you catch the likely problems for various disabled folks? Liquid medications must be "verified as authentic." "Walking aids must be screened." "Only airport-provided wheelchairs may pass through the screening point."

    It's always smart to travel with prescriptions as evidence for medication and other medical concerns, but if mothers are being asked to taste their babies' bottled milk at screening points what are diabetics being asked to do with their insulin vials? How does this authentication take place and how consistently are the least... invasive procedures being used?

    Since prosthetic legs are walking aids and have been subject to security search since 9/11, it's likely amputees are required to remove them today as well. Are other limbs searched too? Are travelers given a little privacy for this or does it occur in the hallway right at the checkpoint with a line of people staring? Are airport-provided wheelchairs x-rayed too? Are those using them given an adequate and safe place to sit while the equipment is taken and checked? Can an x-ray machine even distinguish the aluminum and steel of canes, walkers and chairs from anything suspicious? My understanding was that they could not, and this was why I was always directed around the walk-through devices at checkpoints and searched with a pat-down, a mirror-on-a-stick, and a handheld scanner.

    What happens to the travelers who must surrender their power wheelchairs and scooters? They might have been fully capable of traveling alone without these surprise restrictions, so are they provided with appropriate assistance for whatever they need between the checkpoint and the plane seat? Like a last chance to use the restroom? I can't imagine the airlines have the staff for this, so likely these folks are simply unable to pee until they reach their destination (How many hours for a flight from Britain to the U.S.?) Pee on the plane? Surely you jest. You've been in those little closet-like restrooms, right? Accessibility of airplane bathrooms is largely a joke -- a big bladder-filled knee-slapper. Luckily carry-on liquids are banned too, though any knowledgeable gimp traveler is on a self-imposed liquid fast already.

    Never in my many pre-9/11 airport experiences did I see an airport-provided wheelchair with a headrest. (And the newer aisle chairs lack them too.) If these don't exist now, there are folks like me who literally may not be able to sit in these loaner chairs without serious risk of injury. How is this handled? Are these people given a pass to keep their power chairs until the gate? (Unlikely.) And are power chair users really surrendering their $5,000 - $10,000 machines at checkpoints with a prayer they show up at their destination unharmed and useable? (As it is, it's incredibly common to get off a plane and find equipment so damaged it's unusable with hundreds of dollars of repair needed -- and never any reimbursement, btw.)

    What about gel-cell batteries that power these machines? The list of banned materials includes wet-cell batteries and all explosives, but laws for disabled access have always allowed gel-cell batteries that will not spill. Since today's restrictions specifically ban "liquids and gels" from carry-on, I expect there's some confusion about gel-cell batteries today. There was confusion throughout the 1990s when I flew, so why should this new stressful situation bring clarity to that? I was constantly defending my batteries, arguing to keep them, keep them with my chair, label them as mine before they disappeared forever from me.

    None of these concerns trumps the security of not being blown to bits while over the Atlantic, I know. Disabled folks want to make it to their destinations in one piece just like everyone else. But they do want to make it to their destinations. And they want to get there without humiliation or harm. If heightened security is the price we pay for living in today's world, which of these safety measures will only be temporary? Is education on treating the disabled with respect when working airport checkpoints part of security training?

    What level of discomfort or humiliation is the proper price for safety on airplanes? That question isn't any easier to answer than the question of how much freedom of speech or privacy we should relinquish for national security, but it does impact disabled folks more. And it's worth everyone's consideration.

    Posted by Blue Lily and crossposted at The Gimp Parade