CHICAGO -- As travelers submit to enhanced security measures at airports -- sometimes begrudgingly -- Marca Bristo empathizes but also thinks: Welcome to my world.
"I say this tongue-in-cheek, but it sort of brought a new level of equality," said Bristo of Chicago, who has used a wheelchair because of a spinal-cord injury since 1977. "We have been going through pat-downs that are invasive forever."
Treatment of the disabled at airport check-in lines has actually improved over past years, mostly because it is more consistent from one place to another, said Bristo, president of Access Living, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Chicago.
After years of fighting for better employee training and sensitivity, advocates for the disabled weren't sure what to expect in November, when the federal Transportation Security Administration rolled out another layer of airport security. The addition of full-body scanners and intensive pat-downs prompted an outcry from some travelers, who complained that the measures were too invasive and unnecessary.
Bristo said the most common complaints that she hears involve lengthy waits for a security check, or when a parent is separated from a child while undergoing the screening, "which is completely unacceptable."
The TSA has worked with 70 disability-related groups to develop its screening techniques for people with physical and hidden conditions, such as autism, said James Fotenos, agency spokesman. Family members or traveling companions should notify security officers of any disability that may call for special assistance or privacy, he said.
When asked if security screenings have changed for people with disabilities, Fotenos described the same procedures used with the regular traveling public.
"A small percent of passengers, less than 3 percent, end up needing a pat-down, which are used to resolve alarms that occur at a walk-through metal detector or if an anomaly is detected during screening with advanced imaging technology," he wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.
Some opponents are taking their concerns to court, including the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit conservative legal organization in Charlottesville, Va., that is "dedicated to the defense of civil, especially religious, liberties and human rights."
In early December, the group sued in U.S. District Court on behalf of three passengers, including a breast cancer survivor who had a mastectomy; a man with an enlarged testicle; and a 12-year-old girl. The lawsuit against Janet Napolitano, secretary of U.S. Homeland Security, and John Pistole, TSA administrator, alleges that TSA agents violated the Fourth Amendment by conducting "unreasonable searches and seizures."
The two adults informed the TSA agent of their medical conditions, but they were still subjected to aggressive pat-downs that caused humiliation and trauma, the lawsuit states. The child went through the body scan without her mother's consent, according to the suit.
Frequent fliers say they find some TSA officers more sensitive than others. If they experience a problem, it often stems from communication barriers, advocates say.
In November, Pistole called a traveler to apologize after the man complained that he was patted down so hard at Detroit Metropolitan Airport that he was splashed with his own urine after his urostomy bag was damaged. He tried to explain to the agent three times that such a bag is used to collect urine when the bladder is removed or damaged, according to news reports.
In other cases, "the TSA thinks (people with limited mobility) are able to move more than they are able to," said Amber Smock, advocacy director for Access Living.
Smock, who wears a hearing aid, traveled over Thanksgiving and noticed that the TSA agents tend to rely heavily on visual direction, waving their hands to show people where to go. She went through the body scan without a problem and was not patted down or asked to remove her hearing aid, she said.
Typically, upon check-in, "I will say, I don't hear well and I need you to be really clear in how you talk to me," said Smock, who lives in Chicago. "One issue I have is when they do bag searches. If I have a liquid in my suitcase, they don't always communicate well on why they are taking my bag."
Travelers with autism or other hidden disabilities face different challenges.
Experts advise families to arrive at the airport early and inform the TSA agents about a disability. Parents can prepare a child by showing them pictures of the terminal in advance and by bringing along comforting foods or activities.
"Oftentimes, children with autism become quite anxious when faced with new situations, especially around the holiday time. There are already things that are different," said Brian Freedman, clinical director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
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In Chicago, the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities has spent the past year training several hundred city employees how to improve their service at O'Hare International and Midway airports, Commissioner Karen Tamley said. While their work is not related to federal security, city employees assist people with disabilities who need help in the parking lots or at the gates.
"We are always working on ways to increase accessibility at the airports," Tamley said. "We are committed to making sure that the traveling experience is good for people. That is your first impression that you have of the city. You want that to be a positive one."
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