My spinal x-ray post-op, turned 90º to the right for banner purposes. The original orientation is below.
TSA Agent Kruze: “Was the surgery worth the pain?”

Yesterday, I was harassed by a group of TSA agents after disclosing my disabled status while seeking the special assistance queue.

My name is Brittany, and I am a woman with an invisible disability.

Well, not entirely invisible: I have a one and a half foot scar down my back where I was cut open twelve years ago. It’s not as visible as it used to be, but it’s certainly still there. When you’re open for six hours, having your spine cranked from an S-curve to a mostly-straight line with the medical equivalent of a tire jack, the mark tends to stay.

I don’t use a wheelchair, because I can walk. I can stand, and sit, and exercise, and crouch. But as often happens with a full spinal fusion, it hurts to do any of those things for too long, and I often can’t do them at all. I use the ADA line at the airport to expedite screenings, since I cannot stand still for long while holding my bags without pain, and bending down to remove my shoes takes time and involves a risk of hurting myself by throwing out a muscle or pinching a nerve.

I’ve had a series of bad encounters with the TSA over the years. Generally, it’s one or two agents who don’t know how to handle passengers with disabilities; irritating, embarrassing, or disconcerting, but generally small incidents. Yesterday, however, I had the most insulting, widespread, and unprofessional encounter with the TSA that I’ve had to date.

Upon arrival at the Seattle-Tacoma airport on March 29, 2016, I went to the central checkpoint (around 3:00 pm PST). I looked around to find the lane for individuals with disabilities or special needs, and did not see it, so I approached an agent and asked, “Where is the line for disabilities?”

“We have Precheck and General Screening,” he responded.

I glanced between the two lines, not clear on what he was indicating, and repeated the question. When he said the same thing, I asked, “Do you have disability screening?”

His response, in a nasty tone: “I’ve already answered that question twice, ma’am.”

Taken aback, I stated that the lack of such a lane seemed to be an ADA violation, especially with a 30 minute general screening line. He replied, in the same rude tone, that since there were no stairs and a wheelchair could be pushed through, it was not a violation.

Left with no choice, I stood in the line for about half an hour, leaning against poles and dividers to take pressure off my spine. It hurt. It got worse the longer I waited. I crouched down when I could, struggling back up when it was time to move, and tried to focus on breathing instead of the pain, as I generally do to cope with my pain.

At last, as I almost reached the podium, a female agent who had been by the male agent before (with her name tag turned upside down, though it read “Kruze”) asked how I was doing. I politely told her I was in pain, and she asked me why. Since it was a polite query, I told her about my spinal fusion, and she asked how long ago it was. I told her I had the surgery in 2004, and she asked what it was like before, and if it would get better. I told her my spine was curved before the surgery, and that it wouldn’t “get better”, because I have two metal rods and thirteen hooks and screws in my spine.

She looked me up and down, then asked if the surgery was worth the pain.

It wasn’t really elective, first of all. I had a million thoughts running through my head, and most of them were dulled by shock at the question. I wore a brace 16 hours a day for three years to try and avoid the surgery. I couldn’t leave the house. I couldn’t breathe. I was in middle school, a cripple, and then had to have spinal surgery to keep my body from becoming even more deformed and painful.

Was it worth it? Yes. What the hell kind of a question was that?

I was taken aback, and I told her, “Yes, it was worth it, because I’m not deformed and my lungs are not being crushed by my body now.”

She walked away, but reappeared when I made it to the podium.

After handing my boarding pass and ID to the man checking them, he looked at them and said, “Congratulations.”

Confused, I asked him what he was referring to. Without looking at me, he said “You made it through [the line].” The female agent, Kruze, heard and tried to hush him.

At this point, my mind was absolutely blown by the level of nastiness I’d encountered from the agents as a collective group, and the only response I could think of was, “With some agonizing pain, yeah.”

He began to patronize me about staffing and “wheelchair lines”, before handing me my ID and pass back and telling me I was good to go.

Seething, I made my way to the belt for carry-ons. The male agent there was polite, but began explaining to me in a condescending fashion (with no prompting) that they would be happy to help me- IF I was telling them the truth about having a disability. I was simply staring at him, at this point, realizing that this was not coincidence. They had spoken about me. They had radioed each other to say, this one is talking about her rights, and we’re going to give her hell for it.

In the middle of his spiel, I voiced my blunt thought:

“Did they get on the radio and tell everyone I was a huge bitch, or what?”

In a stunned moment, he began to stammer, and said “Not, not in those exact words — “ before hurriedly turning and going to tell the agents further ahead that I couldn’t take my shoes off and would need the scan and swab.

They had me do the scan, but instead of checking my shoes, I was patted on the hips and thighs by a female agent. (This was odd, since I was wearing leggings and an elastic dress without any metal, but I was running late by now and didn’t care to press it.)

After getting through the check, I quickly limped to my gate, panicked that I would be too late to preboard the plane (at 3:40).

I arrived at the gate desk, breathlessly asking if they had boarded. When the gate agents told me that there was a delay for some maintenance, I was so relieved that I began to laugh — and then began to cry at the same time, humiliation finally overtaking my efforts to keep my composure while the TSA agents harassed me.

I went to the restroom to compose myself before returning to the gate.

My spine, as it has been since 2004 and always will be.

I can walk. I am not visibly disabled. But I am, indeed, an individual with a physical disability, and the abuse and disrespect I received from the TSA at SEATAC yesterday was absolutely unacceptable. When I can, I use the normal line. When I am not in pain, I do my best to function to the best of my ability. But when I am in pain, and need to be accommodated, I expect the TSA to train their agents to handle the situation with professionalism and grace, ensuring that passengers feel that they are being treated with respect and dignity. Accusations of lying, nasty remarks, and leading questions about my disability in order to degrade me are not how I or any individual with a disability, visible or not, deserve to be treated as we pass through security checkpoints.

The most pathetic and laughable part of this experience is that, unlike airline employees, the TSA agents who behave this way do so with impunity. They are part of an understaffed system, and rather than being reprimanded, they will likely be allowed to continue treating future passengers in this fashion, making more disabled individuals feel less than human, like they are inconveniences, like they deserve the pain and discomfort they feel for existing in the same spaces as able-bodied people, like they are less worthy of respect than the passengers without disabilities who pass through their checkpoint.

So, once again, TSA: Thank you for making my travel experience degrading and humiliating. After a wonderful trip, I have been reminded that disabilities are not understood or respected by many who work for your organization, and that your training does not teach agents how to handle non-visible disabilities without distrust and disrespect. It’s been the worst episode, but it wasn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Thankfully, I can afford the precheck program, and once my interview is completed, I will hopefully be spared the brunt of this abuse in the future. Unfortunately, many are not able to do so, and their disabilities limit their income and their access to programs like precheck.

If not for me, “the huge bitch”, perhaps you can review your training protocols for them.

Edit:

I’ve gotten a surprisingly large response on this piece from the disabled community. I truly appreciate your support and advice.

Since I have gotten a lot of questions about this, I wanted to clarify a few points.

  • I have filed a complaint with the TSA and the investigator general for the DoHS. I have not heard back from them in any way, shape, or form, aside from a tweet from the @askTSA account on Twitter asking me to provide more details/a thorough report of the incident on their website.
  • My “tone” was not overly rude or aggressive at any point during this encounter, and I didn’t raise my voice. While I was upset and in pain, I know that the TSA can retaliate by making your screening longer, more invasive, and making you miss your flight, and I did not want to deal with the backlash of yelling or being viewed as a “hysterical” person, which would be all the excuse they’d need to pull me out of line.
  • Agent Kruze’s questioning began innocently, which is why I responded instead of refusing. The tone of her questions became more condescending as the exchange went on, and the “once-over” look she gave me before asking if my surgery was worth the pain crossed the line from innocent questioning to disrespectful and degrading.

Edit 2 [ 4/1 ]

I received a response from the TSA, putting me in touch with a representative from SeaTac. I am waiting to hear from her.

Edit 3

More questions! Okay.

  • My flight was at 4. I got to the airport at about 2:30, had to walk from the train to wait in line, check my bags, and get to security. I wasn’t grumpy, I had just finished an amazing weekend trip with friends.
  • I prefer walking places, even in the airport. Yes, I know I can get a wheelchair, but sitting for too long hurts my back as much as standing for too long, and I honestly do need to walk to work on my core and lower back muscles, because they’ve atrophied after years of being held up by a metal rod, and I’m trying to work on that. So, yes, I have considered using a wheelchair, but I am also not comfortable with it, and don’t think I should have to be in a wheelchair to receive accommodation while I travel.
  • I do have a handicap placard for parking. I don’t bring it with me when I travel, though, and while I have joked about wearing it around my neck when I go through security checkpoints, I don’t see the need to do so. As stated, my accommodations are not exactly extreme. I can’t stand in the line for too long, I can’t take my shoes off, I need help lifting my bags. Simple! Other issues require much more work for the agents, and even those wouldn’t merit the responses I got from the agents.
  • Also, the TSA ADA card is literally a pdf where you can type in a condition and print it out. There’s no reason that this card is or should be more valid than the simple statement, “I have a disability and need accommodations.” https://www.tsa.gov/sites/default/files/disability-notification-card-508-03292016.pdf

Addendum:

Please stop telling me to use a wheelchair. Yes, I know it’s available. No, I should not have to use one to be treated with respect at an airport.

While I appreciate the concept, it falls into the same vein as other issues in our society. If someone from a marginalized group does not want to be stereotyped as X, they need to Y. If men of color don’t want to viewed as threats, they need to dress “professionally”; If women want to be taken seriously, they need to be less feminine — but not too masculine; And so on.

I will not consign myself to a chair to fit the visual definition ableist society wants me to fit. I will not use mobility aids I don’t need in an attempt to legitimize myself to able bodied people. I am legitimate as I am.

Edit [4/11] — It’s Not About Me.

I confess, I stopped checking notifications for a while to deal with being sick/the overwhelming response that I’ve gotten here.

I have received a preliminary follow-up from the SEATAC Customer Service rep for the TSA. Form letter, etc. so nothing new there. Even so, I have discovered that the Department of Transportation has stated that passengers with disabilities “can choose to go to the front of the screening line and use any screening lane you choose. You don’t have to use the screening lane designated for people with disabilities or wheelchairs.” (Source: https://usodep.blogs.govdelivery.com/2010/12/21/tsa-screening-for-passengers-with-mobility-disabilities/) In short, I wasn’t expecting special treatment- I was expecting the agents to follow existing policy.

While I do, indeed, want an apology from the TSA for this incident, the responses to this story have made it clear that this is a pattern, rather than a singular event. People with disabilities, visible and invisible, are mistreated on a regular basis by TSA agents across the country. The fact that it happens so consistently reveals that the problem is not with the people trying to access travel; it means that the agency needs better training and more effective regulations on the way they handle disabled passengers. (Pro tip: “Disabled individuals are humans who deserve basic respect” would be a good starting point for that section of the handbook.)

If this article, and all the responses about other incidents of mistreatment at the hands of the TSA, make you mad? Act on it. Call your representative. Write to the TSA. Contact the Department of Homeland Security. Say something. Say it more than once. Say it until you are heard, and keep saying it until changes happen.

Tell them that accessibility and accommodation are not the same thing. Disabled individuals should not have to fear traveling. We should not have to worry that we will be shamed, harassed, or have our mobility equipment damaged, confiscated, or destroyed by the people who are paid to keep us- ALL of us- safe. The ADA was only enacted in 1990 (the year I was born, ironically.)

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If you have any questions, you can find me on Twitter @brittanynquinn.

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Speak Out.

Don’t know who your representative is? Find them here: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/

Contact the Department of Homeland Security: https://www.dhs.gov/contact-us

Contact the TSA: https://www.tsa.gov/contact

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