When I Told a TSA Agent I Was Disabled and He Said 'No, You're Not'


Unfortunately this isn’t the first time I have had problems with being called out on my invisible illness. Back in 2014, I received a note on the windshield of my car after I parked in an accessible parking spot. At that point I was still on crutches, and couldn’t understand why someone would question me. 

I recently traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina for my new job and had a severely embarrassing event occur when I was catching my flight to head home to Pittsburgh. To fully understand the situation, let me give you some background.

Here are the highlights:

  • I spent 3.5 years on crutches and, because of my avascular necrosis and psoriatic arthritis, I was unable to walk far distances — even using the crutches.
  • Over the past 3.5 years, my pain, fatigue and weakness has prevented me from walking anywhere – in grocery stores, malls, going out with friends, airports. Some days walking up my steps felt like climbing Mt. Everest. Everyday of my life I have to deal with managing my chronic illness. Every single day.
  • Every time I’ve traveled during that 3.5 years, I had to check my bag and have someone wheel me to my gate.
  • I’m 30 and just want to live a “normal” 30-something life!

In the last year I’ve had a lot of wins. I had my stem cell procedure, I transitioned off of crutches for good, and even made my first trip without crutches in February. Last weekend I traveled to Chicago and walked the whole way, but still checked my bag. For my Charlotte trip, since I was only going for one day, I decided to carry on my bag. I had been doing so well, why not?

This past week has been a busy one. Sure, I’m doing awesome and am controlling my conditions extremely well, but it had been a long week. By Wednesday afternoon, when I was catching my flight home, my butt was dragging. It was all definitely starting to catch up to me.

In the car on the way to the airport I contemplated asking to be wheeled to my gate, but I decided against it. I had wanted to walk it and carry on my bag this time, and I was going to do it!

When I got to the airport, I decided to go up to the accessible side of the line because I was already starting to not feel great and knew I wanted to get to my gate as soon as possible. The security line was longer than I was expecting and I knew standing in that line was going to cause me issues. In my mind, I needed to get through security and to my gate as soon as I could.

So, I walk up to the TSA agent who was checking tickets and IDs and start pulling out my ID from my wallet. He looked at me and said something to the effect of “This line is closed.” And motioned back to show that the rope was up. Well yes, I thought. In order to allow me to go through you’d have to unclasp the rope and let me go in the regular security line.  I was confused? I’m not sure exactly what my response was, but it was something like “Huh? This is the handicap line — I’m disabled.”

And he looked at me, scoffed, and responded with “No, you’re not.”

I wish I could have seen my face at that moment because I was like um, what did this guy just say to me?

I respond with, “Um, yes I am. I probably even have my disability card here in my wallet.” So I start looking for the card that I received when I was issued my placard. The card is totally worn and discolored and I was praying it was in my wallet. I knew sometimes I left it in my car.

As I’m looking through my wallet, he proceeded to ask, “How are you disabled?”

How? How am I disabled?! Was this guy serious?! Was this seriously something he was asking me?

I looked at him and said “First off, you’re not allowed to ask me that. Second off, I have psoriatic arthritis and I am disabled.”

At this point I’m like, please God let this disability card be in my wallet. As I’m thinking this, I spot it, I whip it out of my wallet and show it to him. He looked at it and said, Well, I have to talk to someone.” Totally not taking me seriously.

He proceeded to say “This line is for people in wheelchairs. So, if you’re not in a wheelchair, you have to stand in line.” And motions back to the long security line that I had definitely already noticed. 

Pardon my french, but are you f-ing kidding me? I couldn’t even believe this was happening. I felt so small. I started shaking I was so upset. I’ve literally been rejoicing that I no longer need my crutches, but in this moment I wished I had my crutches. Then he would have taken me more seriously, then he wouldn’t have questioned me, then we wouldn’t have even been having this conversation! At this point, I was glad I wasn’t with my new coworkers because seriously how freaking embarrassing is that?!

In that moment, I started thinking about all the stories I had heard of people not being taken seriously. I started thinking about the endless conversations I had been involved in with patients just wanting to be treated equally. I started thinking back on how many people I had heard trying to raise awareness about invisible illnesses and how there is an entire week devoted to raising awareness.

I started getting really upset. I was trying to remain calm and collected, but my mind was racing all over. I stood there for a few minutes and didn’t even look at the guy’s name!  I couldn’t really think straight because I was shocked this was happening.

The TSA employee had called another man over. I showed him my card, he said “OK” and he let me through. I couldn’t even look at that other guy. How rude! How are you disabled?! How did he even think that was a legitimate question?

I’m strong. I’m confident. I know I’ll be fine. I’m glad this happened to me because I know I can, and did, handle it. But imagine if I wasn’t as strong. Imagine if I didn’t have the confidence I do. Imagine if this would have crushed my spirit?

I had been so excited to be feeling like a “normal” person, but still needed a little help. It was like I was chastised for asking for help.

After going through security my mind was all over the place. I found my gate and started decompressing from what had just happened. I just couldn’t even believe it. I’m sorry, but Charlotte Douglass Airport needed to be made aware of it.

This is why we need each other.

This is why we need to share our stories.

This is why sharing the patient voice is so important.

This is why I do what I do!

After I wrote about what happened on social media, the airport did reach out to me and I told them I wanted to talk to the terminal operations manager and the supervisor of the TSA. I want to know what they’re doing to address this, what they’re doing to prevent this from happening to anyone else — visible or invisible disability — and I want their employees to hear (either from reading this blog or from me directly) my story. Here is the DM Twitter conversation I had with them. My last comment was that I wanted them to call me directly.

twitter message from airport

twitter message to aiport

twitter message from airport

If you only read one thing in this whole blog post, read this:

Not all disabilities are visible.

Just because someone is not in a wheelchair, doesn’t mean that they don’t need help.

There are so many others out there who are just like me. Who seemingly look “healthy,” but need assistance. Who need to use the accessible line. Sure, I realize there are some who probably abuse it, but don’t penalize those of us who actually do have problems because of their ignorance.

I don’t wish anything bad on the TSA agent who I encountered. My hope for him is that he understands that disabilities come in all forms and we need to treat each and every one of us – regardless of race, sex, gender, ability, disability, religion, etc. – the same. With respect and dignity. I feel like this situation gives me the perfect outlet to help raise awareness for those who cannot speak up for themselves.

I’m sure I’m not the first person who’s had this happen to, but what I can do is help to make it one of the last.

Individually we may be just one case, but together we can truly make an impact.

***

I want to let everyone know what happened as a result of this incident.

I received a call from the Terminal Operations Manager at the airport. She was genuinely sympathetic and very gracious in her apology. You know when someone is truly touched by something? I really felt she was upset by what had transpired. I like to believe I can read people well and I really felt that she understood and knew it was unacceptable. She apologized profusely and said that she wished she could have caught me before my flight left to have handled this in person. I appreciated that, but I know the timing of it all wasn’t optimal, so I don’t blame them for that at all. I explained that I wasn’t trying to be vindictive or malicious raising this issue, but there was definitely awareness that needed to be raised. She agreed and said that she had already submitted a complaint to the TSA and one of the managers would be calling me. Since they hadn’t called me already, she was going to follow up with them again.

Then, a TSA manager called me. I appreciated that. She was very apologetic about the whole situation and went on about how it wasn’t an excuse, but TSA was having some issues at that point because they had just closed one of the lanes and were merging everybody into one. OK, whatever. It is what it is. But what she went on to say really made me realize that she was taking this seriously.

She mentioned that she had watched the videotapes several times and had spoken one-on-one with the officer who I had the problem with. She said she was really surprised it was him because he was one of their best officers. He said there were many people trying to skip the line (because of the line merges, the security line was fairly long) and when I approached him I looked perfectly fine. I explained that I totally didn’t blame him for not realizing that I had a problem.

I said if she told me what the process should be, I’d be more than willing to disseminate that information to my blog readers and other invisible illness warriors. She said as long as you have your card, the officer should just allow you through. I will admit, I didn’t have my card out right off the bat. So I will take that lesson away from this — next time, make sure to have your card out. And, to me, that is a perfectly reasonable request! I can surely do that.

She made it a priority that each and every TSA officer had to read the situation as part of their daily duties and she said the she’d make sure that each of them knew what had happened. The officer that had denied me access at first will have to retake the training he just completed on invisible disabilities.

From the two women I spoke to, I do believe this situation started conversations that weren’t happening before.

Like I said before, I wasn’t doing this to be rude or to start a war. I wanted to raise awareness. And I feel like in the Charlotte airport, awareness has definitely been raised. My hope is that the TSA agents will now have more compassion and awareness of invisible illnesses from here on out.

Follow this journey on It’s Just a Bad Day, Not a Bad Life.


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