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More MS news articles for May 2003

Screeners retraining to search disabled

May 28, 2003
By Tom Ramstack
The Washington Times

The Transportation Security Administration is retraining its airport screeners to search disabled passengers after a series of complaints about indignities suffered by the disabled.

Screeners have been accused of forcing passengers to remove prosthetic limbs, lifting them out of wheelchairs or separating blind travelers from their guide dogs.

In the early days after the September 11 attacks, "I was not treated with dignity and respect," said Ruth Ann Miller, who is wheelchair-bound from multiple sclerosis. She did not offer specifics.

New screening procedures use different techniques for searching disabled passengers that vary with each disability.

"Our highest goal is to seek to prevent security incidents," Sandra Cammaroto, the TSA's program manager for disability training, said yesterday at a press conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The TSA is a federal agency created by Congress after the September 11 attacks to ensure security on airlines and other transportation modes.

The TSA started training airport screeners about unique needs of disabled passengers more than a year ago, when passengers complained to Congress.

The training program announced yesterday is the most elaborate upgrade to screening techniques to date, Miss Cammaroto said. The program was developed after consulting with groups such as the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the National Council on Disability.

The techniques are supposed to enforce security but "not cause a scene at the checkpoint," Miss Cammaroto said.

Screeners are being taught about the kinds of prosthetic equipment used for different disabilities, as well as alterations that could indicate a hidden weapon.

Alterations could include unusual attachments to the steel tubing of wheelchairs or hidden compartments in electronic devices.

If the program is successful, it will be used on passenger railroads, buses and other common carriers.

"We will be taking this program, as a model program, into other modes of transportation," Miss Cammaroto said.

Screeners are being taught to search wheelchair-bound travelers without unnecessary groping.

They also are instructed to search guide dogs without taking them away from their blind masters. Diabetics will be allowed to carry more than one hypodermic needle onto an airplane if the screeners determine the passengers represent no risk.

In each case, screeners are supposed to group disabled passengers into one of four categories for searches appropriate to each category. The disability categories involve either mobility, hearing, sight or hidden ailments, such as heart or lung problems.

Representatives of disability groups said the TSA has made steady progress in screening disabled passengers.

"While there are still complaints by some passengers who have disabilities, there is a growing feeling that conditions have improved for most of them," said Jeff Rosen, general counsel for the National Council on Disability.

Charles Crawford, American Council of the Blind executive director, said some blind passengers were searched after the September 11 attacks without being told what was happening to them. Other times, screeners damaged the writing tool, called a stylus, on electronic Braille writers.

"For a long time, we had a problem because security folks didn't understand what that stylus was for," Mr. Crawford said.

Among the disabled travelers at the TSA press conference was Michael Winter, the Federal Transit Administration's civil rights director, who said improvements to TSA screening of disabled passengers is improving noticeably.

"We're not there yet, but we're moving there," he said shortly before rolling his wheelchair through a special gate at a security checkpoint.

Despite illness or injury, disabled passengers can create security risks, he said. "People with disabilities need to be screened the same as everybody else," Mr. Winter said.

Melanie Brunson, American Council of the Blind advocacy director, said disabled passengers seek "to be treated like other travelers who don't have disabilities." She was accompanied at the press conference by her guide dog, Zora.

Copyright © 2003 News World Communications, Inc.