It’s 2023. It’s Time to Do Better for Travelers With Disabilities

TSA employees at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. (Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images)

Last year, I watched in horror as an officer for the Transportation Security Administration at JFK tossed my son aside at an airport checkpoint as if he were a piece of discarded luggage. My husband and I and our four young children were traveling from New York for a family vacation.  

We’d spent an hour checking in and another hour inching forward in the priority security line. When we finally approached the metal detectors, a TSA agent walked over—and abruptly pushed our 10-year-old toward an abandoned car seat and stroller. 

“Excuse me, what are you doing?” I protested.

“Wait here,” the agent said—to me, not to my son. Then, she walked away without acknowledging him. 

Our son has a rare disease and uses a wheelchair. He is not an inanimate object. Like many people with communication disabilities, he also understands far more than he says; you can see in his eyes that he hears you. So, at the agent’s words, he started crying. As did I. As did our children on the other side of the security checkpoint. 

It will probably take a lifetime to evolve away from the ableism built into airports, but a few changes could be enforced in 2023 to make a difference. 

Our short window of preboard time disappeared. At last—after two supervisors materialized, after one leaned around our son as though he wasn’t there, after the other tried grabbing his hands out of the way as she waved a wand over his chair—we got a nod signaling clearance. 

We ran to our gate, where our flight was boarding. An attendant said he was sorry for the inconvenience and suggested we write a letter. “That’s the only way the system will change,” he said.  

So, here’s my letter. 

To the TSA, the Department of Transportation and all airline carriers: 

At the start of what was supposed to be a magical family vacation, we lost the ability to ensure our son’s basic needs were met. As the dust settles on a holiday travel season marred by unprecedented interruptions, please direct your attention to an issue that is far more pervasive, albeit quieter, than travel inconveniences: passengers being treated with an utter lack of humanity. 

Although the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 encoded in law a “bill of rights” for passengers with disabilities—including demands that TSA personnel provide timely assistance and accommodations, and treat travelers with dignity—devastating reports of dehumanizing experiences persist.  

Here is what our mistreatment at JFK meant to my family: 

We lost time for toileting; incontinent youth and adults need to be changed before boarding. As you can imagine, airplane bathrooms are not equipped for such services, and many terminal bathrooms are only marginally better. Nationwide, only 17 airports have at least one facility to support our hygiene needs.   

We lost time to feed our son and administer his maintenance medications. This is best done at a table, and ideally at one that’s wheelchair accessible—which are also few and far between in airport terminals. Many individuals with disabilities, and about half those with our son’s disease, rely on a feeding tube for nutrition. None of us can just wing feeding and administering medication in flight. 

We lost time to board first to install my son’s safety harness, so he could be secure during flight. This is no small task: One of us needs to maneuver him onto the plane and into the harness while the other disassembles his wheelchair for storage (while simultaneously watching our three younger children). We need to break down the wheelchair to store it so that airline workers don’t damage it

None of this *needs* to be this way. 

Our experience was the result of systems designed without the needs of disabled passengers in mind. It will probably take a lifetime to evolve away from the ableism built into airports, but a few changes could be enforced in 2023 to make a difference. 

Congress could start with revisiting the training procedures of TSA officers and employees of air carriers. Per the FAA Reauthorization Act, passenger-facing agents are required to receive 80 hours of training that must include ensuring proficiency in the proper and safe handling of equipment, boarding and deplaning assistance, and awareness and appropriate responses to passengers with disabilities. However, when I spoke with TSA directly to file my civil rights violation, the agent could not confirm how much of training is actually dedicated to this content.  

Further, although TSA confirmed there is a proficiency exam at the end of training, they also confirmed “no one fails the exam.” Without accountability, such “training” may merely be serving as a checkbox to protect TSA when complaints are made against agents who fail to uphold the code of federal regulations

Speaking of failed procedure, by law I was supposed to receive assistance from our air carriers’ complaint resolution official (CRO)—personnel designated to serve as experts of policies—when the incident escalated. Although we wouldn’t have had any time to utilize this resource had it been made available, I wonder how our experiences could be improved if the level of training required of CROs was invested in the individuals who interact with passengers in the first place.  

What we don’t need are apologies for the ‘inconveniences.’ Saying you’re sorry doesn’t stop dehumanizing experiences from happening again—to us or to any other family. 

It’s 2023. It’s time to do better, TSA.  

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Christina Cipriano is an assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine and a Yale public voices fellow of the OpEd Project.