- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

“Are you ready?” Tomas Cuellar, a screening supervisor at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, asked a girl in a wheelchair yesterday as he pushed her through a Terminal B checkpoint.

The girl nodded and Mr. Cuellar escorted the girl through the “corral,” where passengers wait for screeners to run electronic wands around them.

The girl was one of 15 disabled children and young adults learning to use the airport as part of a Children’s Hospital program to help them transition toward independent living.

The question was whether they could maneuver through the check-in process without a hitch.

“Some of them have not been on a plane,” said Sarah Higginbotham, a coordinator for the Adolescent Employment Readiness Center at Children’s Hospital. “It’s the first time they’ve been in the airport also.”

They were guided from the terminal door to a departure gate by Transportation Security Administration personnel, stopping at each point in the process for an explanation of what to expect.

The children and young adults ranged from 12 to 19 years old, many of them with learning disabilities. Three were in wheelchairs.

The screening process is the most controversial part of travel by disabled persons because of complaints about insensitivity by screeners to their special needs.

Early this year, TSA screeners started paying closer attention to prosthetic devices after intelligence reports showed terrorists could fill them with explosives. The screening procedure involves swiping them with swabs to detect trace chemicals from explosives.

The Amputee Coalition of America complained the swiping was sometimes done around sockets, near the wearers’ private parts.

On previous occasions, wheelchair-bound persons have complained that screeners tried to lift them out of their chairs.

In response, the TSA organized the Screening of Persons with Disabilities Program to train screeners to properly handle disabled passengers.

TSA officials at Reagan Airport said most problems with screening the disabled have been resolved.

“All of our checkpoints are designed specifically for the disabled,” said Tim Grant, deputy federal security director at Reagan Airport, adding that policies have been revised to adapt to their special needs.

Disabled young people tend to react differently to screening than most people, he said.

“I think they personalize it,” Mr. Grant said.

The only problem that arose yesterday was trying to avoid getting lost in crowds of vacation travelers.

Near an America West departure gate, Jerome Watkins, 19, said he liked taking off his shoes and running them through the explosives detection system at the checkpoint.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said.

Antoinette, a 14-year-old who explained her disability by saying, “I don’t learn on the right track,” said she didn’t mind being checked with a hand-held metal detector.

“They’re just making sure I don’t have any weapons,” she said.

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