Flying the Unthinking Skies

At airports across the U.S., the disabled are being scrutinized and delayed more than ever before. Security is essential, but so is common sense

By John M. Williams

Gerald Cohen, an electronics engineer who is blind, arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Sept. 18 two hours before his flight time, confident that he would make his flight even with heightened security. Three hours later, his plane was in the air, but he was still on the ground, detained by security officials. Cohen, 33, says he was supposed to be met by airport personnel who usually assist him when he flies. Instead, confused security officials kept telling him to go inside. When he refused, he says they held him for questioning. "Being blind definitely is a disability in this climate," Cohen said.

Mohammed Fadl, 28, who is deaf, was walking through the Cleveland Airport with his friend, Fiesal Jarrah, on Sept. 18 when security personnel stopped them. "We were asked to accompany them to an interrogation room," he said. Several hours later, they say they were released, but they, too, missed their plane. "The security police thought because we are Middle Eastern and we were signing to each other, we were communicating in code," said Fadl, a native of Chicago, Ill., where he teaches sign language.

Air travel has never been easy for people with disabilities. But as the nation's air travel system tries to return to some semblance of normalcy after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, stories of people with disabilities being detained, missing flights, and feeling mistreated are on the rise. To some extent, it's understandable. Airports and airport security are on heightened alert, and inconveniences have grown for all travelers, not just the disabled. But airport officials must understand that these are especially difficult times for travelers who can't speak, see, or hear, and those who use wheelchairs.


  I have received telephone calls from scores of people with disabilities telling me of their traveling woes at airports. In two cases, blind people were told they could not take their canes on the plane because they could be used as weapons, and they were questioned about their guide dogs, which security officials seem to be concerned might be used as attack dogs once on the plane.

Neither man was offended. They recognized the need for additional precautions. But the woes for disabled travelers also extend to the assistive technology they bring on board. At Atlanta's International Airport, a Braille 'n Speak was taken from a blind passenger, checked, and returned only after the passenger landed in Denver, where it was checked again. Braille 'n Speak is a note taker and personal organizer for blind and visually impaired people. Users can store more than 2,500 pages of Braille information on it. A security spokesman for the Denver Airport told me, "We were unfamiliar with the product and were surprised he got it on board [in the first place]."

People wearing hearing aids are having them inspected to make sure they are not transmitters. Walkers and wheelchairs are suddenly suspect. For example, Charles Gromly, a 33-year-old quadriplegic of Indian descent, recently flew from London to Atlanta: "My power wheelchair was practically taken apart in an effort to find weapons. A big burly man lifted me out of my seat to check my cushion at Heathrow." Gromly, a frequent traveler, had never been picked up before.


  A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration explains that all travelers had better get used to such precautions. "Items we never thought of before are being checked, double-checked, and sometimes triple-checked for security purposes," the spokesman said. At least the FAA is listening. "We welcome any suggestions from passengers with disabilities on ways to improve their travel and security for every passenger," the FAA adds. Comments, suggestions, and complaints should be addressed to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Web site. There, you can click on the "access" icon to e-mail Transportation officials. The FAA has a separate e-mail and a fax number, (202) 267-5091, for travelers who wish to weigh in. People can also call (866) 289-9673 between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Eastern Time, Monday through Friday. To accommodate those who are deaf and hearing-impaired, the FAA should add a TTY number. There is no excuse for not having one.

Representatives from the six airlines I called, plus airport authorities, had similar messages on providing assistance to people with disabilities. They encourage disabled travelers to call the airlines ahead of time for assistance, and to be very specific about when they will arrive.


  These are difficult times for everyone. People with disabilities, along with able-bodied individuals, will have to wait in longer lines than usual and must arrive at airports earlier than has been their custom. All travelers will have to submit to more stringent searches then they have in the past and must be very careful about what they bring aboard. Their lives depend on it.

At the same time, the government and airline authorities must redouble their efforts in training personnel on the needs of passengers with disabilities. Sign language must be taught to safety personnel. More TTYs must be established at airports to allow hearing-impaired people to call in the event of emergencies. And security personnel must understand the equipment that people with disabilities routinely carry. With the airlines hungry for business, every passenger counts.

Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

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Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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