Diabetes Forecast

How the ADA Supports Travelers’ Rights

Trained officers plus prepared passengers equal smooth security checks

By Stephanie M. McPherson , , ,

H. Mark Weidman Photography/Alamy

Getting through airport security with diabetes can be a pain. Katharine Gordon, director of the Legal Advocate Program at the American Diabetes Association, works with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to make it a little easier, safer, and more pleasant for all.

Q: How, as a legal advocate for the ADA, do you work with the TSA?

Since the TSA’s founding [in 2001], the American Diabetes Association has been in communication with TSA because diabetes in particular does affect airport security screening. You’re bringing on sharp objects, you’re bringing liquids, you have devices that might not be familiar. So we, from the very beginning, recognized a need to be in communication with TSA.

TSA has a disability coalition, which is a large group of people from many different disease and disability groups. We have an annual conference and quarterly phone calls, so we have regular channels of communication. One of the things that we work on is alerting TSA staff to problems. For example, if we’re starting to hear multiple stories about a certain airport, we would want to approach them about that.

In terms of individual assistance, we ask people to go through the TSA Office for Civil Rights (OCR) complaint process, which can often, at a minimum, lead to the retraining of employees who haven’t followed the procedures or who haven’t treated travelers with respect and dignity. There are not many ways for passengers to file a lawsuit. In my experience, however, very often the folks at OCR are able to really get to the bottom of the problem.

Q: Are TSA workers trained to recognize diabetes technology?

They’re supposed to be. They do all receive some training in disabilities. In the past few years, TSA started to do more in terms of training for a wide range of disabilities. For example, disease groups will actually come into an airport and do live training with TSA officers.

Some of the big issues are: Is everybody receiving the training that they need? Is it effective training? If they are overloaded with information, how can we make sure that they are using their training and complying with it? For the most part, the policies themselves aren’t inappropriate. One of the problems, however, is that sometimes travelers are not aware of the policies, or TSA officers themselves are not aware of them.

One of the biggest changes that we’ve seen—and it’s certainly not perfect yet—is that TSA is beginning to view itself more as a customer service provider and less as only a law enforcement agency.

Most problems occur when there’s a lack of communication with the TSA officer who doesn’t listen to what the traveler is saying. If TSA officers could demonstrate more respectful dialogue, I think that almost any issues that people with diabetes would have while traveling would be eliminated. In fact, there is a consensus among disease, disability, and civil rights groups that a top priority of TSA must be to improve the ability of all of its officers to communicate appropriately. (I do want to recognize that many TSA officers are excellent.)

For the vast majority of people with diabetes, [going through security] is completely incident-free. There might be a bit more scrutiny because you do have sharps, and you do have other medical devices, but for the most part people get through pretty easily. But if you have some reason to think that that might not happen, there’s TSA Cares (1-855-787-2227). You can call 72 hours in advance, and you can ask for support at the airport. If you run into problems at the checkpoint, ask for a passenger support specialist, a TSA employee who has received specialized disability-rights training.

Q: If someone wanted to know whether or not a certain pump or continuous glucose monitor (CGM) could go through the imaging systems, would TSA be able to provide advice?

Travelers should look to their manufacturer, because different manufacturers have different guidelines. You have the right to be allowed to go through the scanner with your pump and/or CGM. If you don’t want to go through the scanner, you don’t need to, but then you would be subject to the full-body pat-down. And if you do go through the scanner, you should only be searched in the area where there was an alarm. So let’s say that you go through with your patch insulin pump on your left arm. Theoretically, you should have the pat-down only of your left arm. You always have a right to have somebody with you to witness any additional screening, and have it in a private location if you would like that.

Q: Have you heard stories where people aren’t allowed to get the pat-down if they want it, or if they had a more invasive pat-down than needed?

I’ve heard infrequent incidences of this. If they occur, we really, really recommend that people call 1-800-DIABETES and ask to speak with a Legal Advocate. We can speak with them about the incident and give them information on their rights. As part of that, we always encourage them to contact the OCR. In some situations, with the individual’s permission, we will also contact TSA directly about the incident.

For the most part it’s quite rare that somebody has a problematic experience, so people shouldn’t feel afraid to fly, or feel afraid to travel in any way. It certainly is not a perfect system, however, and we rely on travelers to let us know when it’s not working so that we can advocate with TSA either to change policies or to ensure that there is better training.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

I think the biggest thing is being prepared. We have a variety of resources about traveling and diabetes on our website at diabetes.org/airportsecurity, including a tip sheet you can print out. Have them with you so you know what to do, know what to expect, and know your rights. You can immediately know what to do if something goes wrong.

[And if something happens,] these are very significant issues that we take very seriously and would like you to contact us. We have all heard stories about a wide range of issues with TSA. However, we never want these stories to limit people’s lives. We want to find out about problems so that they can be addressed.

Adapted from the Joslin Diabetes Center blog, blog.joslin.org.


Your Rights

Do you think you are facing discrimination because of diabetes in school, the workplace, while traveling, or in other areas of life? Contact the ADA Legal Advocate Program for help, at 1-800-DIABETES (1-800-342-2383).

Security Tips

See ADA’s resources for travelers at diabetes.org/airportsecurity



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