Appalling treatment of amputees at airport security checks

Going through airport security checks can be a humiliating experience, espeically for people with disabilities (photo by Matthew Henry)
Going through airport security checks can be a humiliating experience, espeically for people with disabilities (photo by Matthew Henry)

Naked In Front Of TSA

I am a passionate traveller. And I have travelled far and wide, often off the beaten track and by local means. As I try to encourage other people with limb differences to go out and explore the world, I regularly share travel tips and travel experiences on my blog. Most of them are inspirational and just provide tested advice. Some of them cover less pleasant experiences to highlight some of the extra challenges people with disabilities face. And today I would like to share a story I recently saw on Linda Olson’s blog. Linda is a very active triple amputee who lost both of her legs and an arm in a train versus car crash in Germany in the early seventies. Linda is not one to give up easily and always tries to make the best of the situation. Even if the situation is degrading and completely unnecessary. Here is her story (which was originally published on Linda's blog in June 2018).



Almighty Father of Airport Security

As I approach my upcoming flight, I humbly beseech you treat me as you would any other law-abiding passenger. You’ll recognize me as the middle-aged, one-arm woman in a wheelchair. I always have a big smile on my face when I arrive because I love to Get Out and Go!


Even though I’m TSA Precheck and a card-carrying Global Entry passenger (meaning that I’ve have been thoroughly vetted by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service), based on years of experience, I’m pretty sure that you’ll look at me warily, wondering where I’ve hidden a dangerous weapon or bomb.


I know you’re going to ask if I can stand and walk through the full body detector—that platform where passengers tremble in their stockinged feet, legs spread eagle and supplicant arms held over their head. A modern-day crucifixion pose, if I’ve ever seen one. I’ll say no, because I’m too unstable on my artificial legs and I also know that the metal in them will set off the alarm. So I remain seated in my wheelchair with my head bowed in the middle of the chaos as the other supplicants partially disrobe all around me, throw their personal belongings into large plastic trays on a conveyor belt, and entreat the x-ray machine goddess to look kindly at the innards of their bags.  

Eventually a uniformed female agent wanders toward me.


“Can you walk through the detector?”


“You will need to have a pat-down.”

“Ok,” I say, giving the required permission to touch me.

She pushes my wheelchair around the detectors to a spot on a rubber mat, leans her body into my personal space and locks my wheelchair.

“Would you prefer a private screening?” Another required question.

“No, let’s just get it over with.”

“Do you have any sensitive areas?” Meaning places that are sore to touch.




Let The Humiliation Begin

Looming in front of me, she intones the TSA Bible–chapter and verse. “I will pat you down firmly using the back of my hands to include your head, neck, arms, torso, legs and feet. This will include private areas such as breasts, groin and the buttocks…”


As I stare at her belt buckle, I put on my “iron face” which is actually a grimace. The longer the recital, the more angry I get as I watch Dave waiting for me. I look away and refuse to talk as she forcefully runs her hands through my hair, under my collar, up and down my back several times, around and under my breasts, feels inside my jeans waistband twice and then thrusts both hands into my groin in a rough up and down motion. Depending on her mood, this might take one minute, or it might take five minutes.


Dozens of humiliating encounters play on my mental video screen, many occurring as a reaction to the attacks of 9-11 when we made frequent trips from San Diego to Sacramento during the women’s college water polo season to watch our daughter play.


My jaw dropped the first time I was asked to unzip my jeans and pull them down so the tops of my artificial legs could be swabbed for C-4 residue, a component for making bombs. My face turned red as I adamantly said there was no way I’d pull my pants down. Within seconds a supervisor appeared and firmly told me that if I didn’t comply, I couldn’t fly. There was no reasoning with him. “I’m not going to pull my pants down,” was my final retort. “If you want to do that, you will have to have your employees pull them down.” And so, two female agents pushed me in my wheelchair down the hall to a public bathroom and into a stall. By then, I was furious, and they were both in tears as I leaned back so they could unzip my pants and do their job. I cried half the way home on the airplane.



Instilling Fear In Travelers With Disabilities

Every time we left the San Diego airport for the next few months, I was humiliated as someone swabbed the tops of my prostheses, on the assumption that I could plant a bomb inside the sockets of my fake legs. Why weren’t they doing cavity searches on all the other female passengers? Pretty sure there’s more potential bomb-carrying space in every woman’s vagina. Why isn’t there a vetting system for handicapped people who fly frequently? Flight crews never seem to have to go through this rigmarole. Why is it illegal to profile people based on skin color or looks but not on disability? Why can’t disabled frequent fliers be vetted so this doesn’t have to happen every time they fly?



You Will Not Bully Me Into A Less Active Lifestyle

And then one weekend, I’d had enough. “Dave, I’ve decided I’m not going to wear underwear to the airport.” (His dream come true). That Friday I rolled up to the metal detector and nervously glanced around. When told they’d need to hand-screen me, I stood up and started to unbutton my pants.  They didn’t like that, but I insisted I wanted to do it right there so everyone could watch this violation. They refused to let me do that and hustled me into the small side room. With a smirk on my face, I unzipped my pants and pulled them down to expose my naked derriere. Their eyes got big and the two people spun around away from me. “Please pull your pants up,” was all they could say. I was still grinning when we landed in Sacramento.


As the agent feels under my wheelchair seat and declares me safe to continue into the terminal, I unlock my wheelchair, roll myself away, and thank the Almighty Father of Airport Security for once again declaring the one-arm, “No-Leg Grandma” no threat to national security.



Guest post by Linda K. Olson. At age twenty-nine, Linda Olson lost both her legs above the knee and her right arm in a train vs. car accident in Germany. You can learn more about her and her very active lifestyle on Linda's blog.


Further Reading

Flying as an amputee


I travel. Actually I travel a lot. For the last 20odd years I have been working 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. read more

Testing the new Genium X3


In the first part of this interview we got to know Jasmin and Andreas. They shared their personal stories with us, told us about their plans for the future and what they expected from a prosthetic device to help them live their dreams. Today we hear more about their experiences testing the revised Genium X3. What tasks did they put the knee to and how did it perform? read more

Bomb blast survivor to rights activist


During a recent visit to India, a friend of mine mentioned Malvika Iyer. A bomb blast survivor who lost both her hands in her teens, Malvika is now a well-known motivational speaker and internationally well known disability rights activist. My friend offered to introduce me to her and shortly afterwards I had the pleasure to get to know Malvika during a phone interview. Right from the moment our Skype connection was live, I felt that Malvika is someone with an immense spirit and an almost unbreakable will. Someone with with an indomitable will. Someone with a story to tell - and she tells it well. Here is Malvika's inspirational story full of optimism. read more