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Easier Airline Screening For Disabled Travelers

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the New York Times, August 11, 2002

WASHINGTON - GUIDE dogs for the blind wear harnesses that set off airport metal detectors. Diabetics carry needles that raise security screeners' suspicions. Wheelchairs are usually too wide to fit through metal detectors, so people who use them are pushed past the security checkpoints through the exits, making it impossible for them to keep their carry-on luggage in sight as it goes through the X-ray machine.

Air travel has always been complicated for the disabled. But while most passengers now dread the trip through checkpoints, advocates for the disabled hope that security changes since Sept. 11 could help them. For the first time, they note, all 429 commercial airports in this country will adopt a uniform system, as the new Transportation Security Administration takes over.

Other travelers may be annoyed by having to take off their shoes or having Pocket knives or scissors confiscated. But Robert N. Herman, senior advocacy attorney at the Paralyzed Veterans of America, said that one of the most important things security officials have done is focus on people with disabilities.

In fact the new agency, created by Congress last November, has delegated a staff member to work full time on travelers with disabilities. That person, Sandra Cammaroto, who previously worked at the Federal Aviation Administration, said that the F.A.A. had "no training, no procedures whatsoever" for the contract screeners to use. (Those screeners are being replaced by Federal employees, a process that is supposed to be complete by Nov. 19.) The new procedures are specific to the disability involved, and were worked out in consultation with a relevant advocacy organization, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Guide dogs, for example, pose a challenge. "One of the most common things you encounter is that security workers are afraid of the dog," said Melanie Brunson, director of Government Affairs at the American Council of the Blind. And they often separate the dog from its owner, she said, inducing anxiety in both.

Usually, she said, the best procedure is for the owner to keep control of the dog even if the two are physically separated; for example, the disabled person could order the dog to sit, then pass through the metal detector alone and order the dog to come. But methods will differ according to the training that the animal and its owner use, she said. Ms. Cammaroto, after meetings with Ms. Brunson and others, is training screeners to ask travelers who use dogs what they would consider the best method.

In previous years, that would have been much more difficult because many screeners spoke limited English, Ms. Brunson said. That problem may ease as the Transportation Security Administration enforces a rule that all screeners be United States citizens.

Before Sept. 11, training for screening disabled passengers was of limited value because turnover was so high; now experts think that trained screeners, with better pay and benefits, may stay on the job for years. Ms. Cammaroto said that the screeners were also getting instruction on people with mobility problems. When someone's cane is taken away or other assistance devices are relinquished for screening, the person is often left to wobble or fall, she said. Now screeners are taught to offer a hand or a shoulder to lean on, or use other proper escorting procedures.

People with artificial limbs or metal implants are offered a choice of a hand search and pat-down in the screening area or in private, she said. (This group would include Norman Y. Mineta, the transportation secretary, who has an artificial hip implant.) People with pacemakers, who the Transportation Security Administration recommends not go through metal detectors, should alert the security workers, who will screen them with wands instead.

After consultation with the American Diabetes Association, the security agency has also established procedures for diabetics. Travelers with diabetic supplies, like needles, should alert the security screeners.

Supplies should have the pharmaceutical label on them, and people carrying syringes must have the insulin to go with them; lancets, which diabetics use to measure blood sugar, are allowed if the traveler also has a glucose meter.

At the Paralyzed Veterans Association, Mr. Herman said that after consultations, the security agency revised its procedure for checking the shoes of people in wheelchairs. Some people who use wheelchairs find it very cumbersome to remove their shoes and put them back on; now security workers screen the shoes without removing them, he said. Another change, he said, is that people in wheelchairs are pushed through a special wide aisle rather than through the exit, a change that helps them keep their laptops and other valuable belongings in sight as the bags go through the X-ray machines.

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