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Why We Should All Be Upset About a Disabled Teen Being Beaten by TSA

Last week, a disabled teenager was flying out of Chattanooga, TN. She was partially deaf and blind, and had just completed a treatment session for a brain tumor. When she set off the metal detector, TSA staff separated her from her mother. She became disoriented, was wrestled to the ground and sustained a bloody head injury. TSA also threw the teen in jail overnight, again separating her from her mother.

The young woman who was beaten by the TSA.
The young woman who was beaten by the TSA.

The family is now suing TSA for damages.

It is no secret to many of us that traveling with a disability is hard. From broken equipment to being carried onto planes and being fondled by members of the opposite sex as they transfer you to an aisle chair, flying with a disability involves many indignities. It’s Russian Roulette as to whether you’ll get people who will actually try to understand your needs, or someone who cannot take the time to see that some passengers need special assistance.

For the most part here in Westernized countries, we have legislation that is supposed to protect us from this kind of treatment, and yet it still happens. Some of us still find ourselves being thankful for safe travels, something most able-bodied passengers take for granted. While thankfulness and gratitude are admirable qualities in a person, we shouldn’t be pressured into feeling grateful for having our basic needs met. Human rights should not be based on the “luck of the draw.”

From Rosa Parks to Gandhi, many major civil rights battles have involved transportation. I see no reason why disability rights cannot be the same, if we are bold enough to stand up for our rights instead of assuming that equal access is “too difficult” or just a “nice thing to do.”

If you look at some of the comments following the internet articles about the story, many members of the public seek to blame the mother, or the teenager herself saying “they should have called TSA ahead of time,” or “some people are just looking for anyone to sue.” To me, this again again shows how our society views equal access for those of us with disabilities as “a nice thing to do” rather than a matter of basic and fundamental human rights. Able-bodied passengers don’t have to call TSA ahead of time, so why should we? Why is it automatically assumed that when someone with a disability sues, they are looking for a payout and not for justice? Why is the pressure to “make it work” placed on those of us with disabilities rather than an inflexible system that clearly does not respect the rights of the most vulnerable?

When we act grateful for the experiences of uninhibited traveling when most of the population takes it as a basic human right, disabled people can enable our own oppression. When we have to call the airline, the airport, TSA, and whatever other authoritative body and let them know we are traveling rather than just rolling up to the checkup desk like everyone else, that is not equal access. When people assume that those of us who make use of the laws and regulations designed to protect us are looking for a quick payout, we are living in a profoundly ableist society.

Now is the time to demand better. The legislation designed to protect the rights of disabled people clearly isn’t enough if government employees are beating disabled teenagers and throwing them into jail without their carers. Stop assuming that fundamental human rights are “a nice thing to have.” It only serves to enable those who think our rights don’t matter in the first place.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were traveling that was either incredibly challenging or where you faced adversity. Tell us how you handled it or wish you had handled it. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.