Flying as an amputee

Going through security when flying can be a humiliating experience for amputees.
Going through security when flying can be a humiliating experience for amputees.

Those Dreadful Security Checks

As you all know, I am an amputee. I am active. I travel. Actually I travel a lot. For the last 20odd years I have been working in various capacities in the wide field of international development assistance. I have visited, lived and worked in more than 30 countries, sometimes only for a few days, sometimes for several years. I have lived and worked next to a tropical beach with a stunning corral reef just a hundred meters off the coast. And I have lived and worked in war zones. I had beautiful encounters with amazing people all over the world. And I had  horrible experiences, often when you least expect them. And looking back I don‘t want to miss a single one of these experiences. They made made me who I am today. Well, thinking about it, one thing I wouldn‘t miss for a second are security checks at airports. While they often make good stories afterwards, I generally find them at least annoying, often dreadful, sometimes outright humiliating. Here are some of my experiences from recent years.


Three Personal Experiences

It‘s all about the right impression

This one is my current favourite: It happened in India (no, I will not give the name of the airport as I don‘t want to get anyone in trouble). You must know that in many Asian airports you are required to have a tag on your carry-on luggage. Your boarding pass and this paper tag are then stamped when you pass through the security check. If they are not stamped, you are not boarding the pane. 


Given the long queues in many airports it can be that you make it through the metal detector way before your carry-on luggage makes it through the x-ray machine (I know it‘s not actually an x-ray, but let me just call it that as I have no clue which technology is actually used). As I always set off the metal detector I am routinely checked with a hand-held device. Once I mention that I am an above-the-knee amputee, I am normally asked to follow the officer to a separate room - often far away - where I have to undergo additional checks. Sometime this only involved a quick look at my artificial knee. But often the additional screening includes taking off my prosthesis. The prosthesis is then put through the x-ray machine and returned to me. My passport number and/or boarding pass details are entered into a ledger, I sign and can go. 


Depending on my mood an the way I am treated during these checks, I am willing to take of the prosthesis - or not. This time, the officer was very friendly, waited for me to get my carry-on luggage and treated me with respect. So I had no objections to the additional checks I was expecting. Once we were in the extra screening room, I was about to take off the prosthesis and hand it over to him to run it through the x-ray machine. But he stopped me and explained: „No need to take it off. We just wait here a few minutes then you can go. Then everyone will think that you have been checked properly. But I know these extra checks are very annoying. My uncle also has one of those prostheses. And he alway complaints about the trouble he has to go though at the airports.“


I had to smile. We chatted for a while. And after a few minutes I was on my way to the gate. 


"Let him go!"

Jinnah International Airport in Karachi is Pakistan‘s busiest airport. The terminal was packed and I was lining up for a domestic flight. A walk-through security check was placed rather randomly in the middle of the hall. At least that was how it seemed to me. People filed through. I heard the on and off peep of the medal detector. Some people then got rid of small change in their pockets, shoes, belts etc., repeated the check and were cleared. Other exchanged a few sentences with the security staff, declined to repeat the security and left the area without any problems.


When it was my turn, I set off the usual beeb and the blinking lights. I explained my situation to the officer and he demanded me to take off the leg. Right there. I objected. Friendly and respectful, but without leaving any doubt that taking off the prosthesis was not an option. Not right there. 


As he didn‘t offer an extra room for me to undergo the extra checks, I didn‘t want to ask for one. That morning I was not in the mood to go through any extra hassle. The fit of my prosthesis had been bad for weeks. Each morning was the same struggle of getting into the socket. Giving the tropical conditions of southern Pakistan, I just dreaded the idea of having to take the leg off, just to fight my way back into the socket again a few minutes later. 


The officer repeated his demand that I take off the leg, I repeated - friendly but with determination - that I for sure was not going to do so. We both had another two goes of more or less the same sentence before it was clear that this wouldn‘t go anywhere.


In the meantime people behind me started to get involved. Unfortunately I do not speak Urdu and wasn‘t able to understand what people were saying. Some talked among themselves. Other started to address the security officer. I guess they were just asking him to let me go so that they could finally clear security and get to their gates. This continued for a few minutes and the discussions were more and more between the security officer on the one hand and people in the queue behind me on the other hand. Soon I was only a spectator to the whole hullaballoo. 


The scene came to an abrupt end when an elderly man entered the scene. „Just let him go!“ was all he said. The officer looked at the man, looked at me and waved me through. I have no clue who this man was. I am not sure if it was just the fact that he significantly was older than the officer and thus needed to be respected or if he was someone well known in the are. But whatever it was, I was deeply impressed by the dynamics at play and by the way the situation changed.


I thanked both the elderly man as well as the security officer, I apologised to the people that had to wait longer and made it to the gate in time to catch my plane. 


"I thank you for your honest answer!"

The last story is again from India. It‘s a bit older, before one of the airports along the eastern coast had a make-over, getting modern equipment for their security checks. I had booked a domestic flight. After check-in I headed to the security check and - as I said off the alarm, as usual - was asked to take off my prosthesis so that it can go through the x-ray machine. First I objected, explained that I find it humiliating and that there must be another way to clear me for the flight. I was told that there wasn‘t another way. Either the my artificial limb will travel through the x-ray machine or I will not travel anywhere. „Could I please talk to your supervisor?“ I asked. A few minutes later the supervisor approached me and repeated more or less what I was told earlier. Either my leg is checked or I will not travel.


After a few more exchanges of arguments, I agreed to the proposed procedure and was led to an office just next to the security check. Big window facing to area where all the people lined up to board the  planes. No curtains. Great. „I might was well charge people for the entertainment“, I thought. But what can I do. So down went the jeans, off went the prosthesis which was then handed to the security officer who ran it through the machine before it was handed back to me a few minutes later. 


I could see that the officer who accompanied me to the side-office was obviously not very comfortable with the whole situation. I broke the silence and explained. „I know you need to do your job and from a security point of view, you are right. I could pose a security threat. But for me these additional checks, often including taking the leg off more or less in public are at nuisance, if not outright humiliating. And I don‘t mean no disrespect. But sometimes I am just not willing to go through it all.“ 


„I am sorry, Sir! But we need to do this.“

„Can I ask if you would have requested me to take off my leg if I would have been an elderly woman, maybe the age of your mother?“

„No, Sir. I would have just waved you through. Also if you would have been an elderly man.“

I smiled. So I just have to wait a bit, until I look older, I thought, and then flying will be so much easier. „That‘s good to know!“. I laughed, thanked him for his honest answer, wished him a nice evening and proceeded to the boarding gate. 


Somehow this little conversation at the end turned a rather unpleasant experience into a good one. An encounter with a human touch, reminding me again that the security personnel is in an almost impossible situation. 


Balancing The Need For Security With The Respect For People With Disabilities

Some security personnel in some countries insist on a very thorough check once I mention that I am an amputee - even before any of the machines starts its beeping light show. Others almost faint with embarrassment and quickly wave me through once I show a tiny bit of the artificial leg. They wave me through even after setting off the alarms of the metal detectors. And I guess you could make a good case for either one of these reactions. Or any of the reactions I regularly get.


I know, it is not easy to balance the public interest for safety in the aviation industry with the right of people with disabilities to be treated in a respectful way. There is no one size fits all. In my eyes there is no right or wrong - even if many security experts disagree with me on that. For each and every person with a disability that sets off the security alarms they need to decide what to do and how to proceed. Each and every time it‘s a judgement call where they have to balance potential security threats with respectful way of engaging with the respective person. And each situation is unique. 


How I experience these situations depends on many factors. Not just the way I am treated at the security gate. That is one of them. But it also depends a lot on my mood on that day, whether I have just started my trip or are already on the go for 24 hours plus. It depends on the fit of my prosthesis on that very day, on the country I am in, its culture and what is appropriate, just to name a few. 


But in the end it is often the attitude and behaviour of the individual officer dealing with me that makes all the difference. I know they are doing their job. And they are in an almost impossible situation. Their job is - first and foremost - to keep the general public safeIf. Being friendly is a ,nice to have‘, not a ,must have‘ in most of their job descriptions. 


If I am treated with respect, I am normally very willing to cooperate. If not, I either throw in the towel right away and play by their rules. Or I can be a pretty stubborn piece of work. Which doesn‘t help.


What Were Your Experiences?

Did you have similar experiences when travelling as an amputee? Or maybe completely different ones? I would love to hear about them. Add them to the comment section or send me a mail and I will publish them in a follow-up post.



Post by Bjoern Eser, the creator of The Active Amputee.