There is clearly no good security purpose served in traumatizing a 3-year-old girl in a wheelchair and upsetting her parents at an airport security checkpoint. Having a security agent take away the crying child’s beloved stuffed doll while the mother records it all on her smartphone can lead to what the Transportation Security Administration, in an apology to the family, gingerly referred to as an unfortunate “incident.”
The encounter at the St. Louis airport on Feb. 9 — propelled into wide media coverage by the 5½2-minute video taken by the girl’s mother — is exactly the sort of public embarrassment that the security agency says it hopes to avoid in the future. As such, the agency says it will begin aggressively promoting a new program of using specially trained officers to head off unnecessary difficulties involving security screening of travelers with disabilities.
The program has 3,000 so-called passenger support specialists who volunteer from among the agency’s workforce of about 45,000 screeners. Their job is to help ensure that disabled passengers receive “the level of screening needed to make us comfortable that there is no threat or risk to aviation, but allows us to do it in a way where we can explain our processes to customers and use whatever discretions that are in our authority to make the screening experience as easy as possible for them,” said Chris McLaughlin, the agency’s assistant administrator for security operations.
The specialists receive three hours of training based on the need to step in when appropriate to “communicate effectively and respectfully with passengers with disabilities,” said Kimberly Walton, the agency’s assistant administrator for civil rights, liberties and travel engagement. Specialists at checkpoints “identify potential difficulties that passengers with disabilities and medical conditions may experience throughout screening” and “either proactively help, or resolve concerns,” she added.
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The agency has been developing the program for more than a year. It was introduced quietly this year and, after the initial evaluation process, was successful. The agency says it now wants more travelers to know that it is in place. Among passengers with disabilities, “the groups that tend to get us the most mention,” McLaughlin said, are children and the aged.
“We recognize that there is a group of passengers that represents lower risk, and at the same time tends to have greater needs of us,” he added.
Under the program, specialists are called on to assist in resolving problems encountered at security checkpoints by passengers in wheelchairs, by those using medical devices like insulin pumps, and those who otherwise present physical or mental challenges. Specialists are trained to “know when the need arises” and identify passengers with special needs, or respond to calls for assistance from regular screeners, McLaughlin said.
The new initiative is tied to an existing program called TSA Cares. That is a toll-free help line — 855-787-2227 — where assistants will provide information about security issues for those with disabilities, or will, when requested, “notify an airport in advance, so our workforce is prepared when they arrive,” Walton said.
She gave an example of parents who called the help line before traveling with an autistic child who “can’t wait in a line, can’t be touched, is not good at following instructions and gets upset if there are too many lights or many sounds — all of which could trigger a really bad experience,” she said. With notice, the agency’s staff was able to anticipate that child’s needs and provide “a good experience” at security, she said.
Groups advocating for the disabled are working with the agency on the new initiative, including the Open Doors Organization, the National Disability Rights Network and organizations for the blind and those who require service animals for travel, Walton said.
Video of crying child
The video of the child, Lucy Forck, crying in her wheelchair at a security checkpoint while her parents tried to reason with security officers demonstrated how delicate such situations can be and how quickly they can go wrong.
The incident in St. Louis involved “a relatively new officer being faced for the first time in her career with a situation of a child in a wheelchair,” McLaughlin said. The agency acknowledged that the screener had incorrectly told the parents that the child needed to be patted down and incorrectly told the mother that it was illegal for her to record the encounter.
“While she did make some advisements to the customer that were incorrect, before she actually physically did any screening she had the presence of mind to request assistance from her supervisor, and that supervisor in turn got a passenger support specialist involved, and as a result of that this child was not screened inappropriately, and the situation was explained to the parents,” McLaughlin said.
After about 20 minutes, the girl, who has spina bifida, was comforted and carried through security by her mother, while the wheelchair was routinely swabbed for explosives. The parents, Nathan Forck and Annie Schulte, later said they accepted the agency’s apology but hoped that the agency would provide better training in dealing more appropriately and respectfully with disabled passengers.
That is the goal of the passenger support program, and a reason that the agency is now promoting its availability, McLaughlin said.
“Our knowing when the need arises is somewhat dependent on customers knowing that the program exists,” he said.