Security Checks or Loss of Dignity

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New Delhi – There have been numerous shocking incidents that have happened time and again when a person with a disability has to suffer so much trauma while going through the security checks at airports here in India. The embarrassment, the humiliation, the feeling of being picked up as an ‘odd man out’ is psychologically shattering.

The dignity of a person absolutely gets battered when one is asked to remove clothes to show her prosthetic device or when someone is not allowed to board the aircraft, because the individual has been labeled ”mentally retarded” or mentally deranged, or when the person is not provided with an aisle chair while boarding the aircraft. This is not a fictitious description of any incident. Such episodes have been a part of the real lives of people like Suranjana Ghosh Aikara, Anjalee Agarwal, Jeesha Ghosh, Rajesh Bhatia and many others who have been not been able to bring their nightmarish experiences in front of the popular media.

The Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has now called for comments from the general public until July 31, 2013 on the draft for the new civil aviation requirements regarding the carriage of persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, in the draft no mention is made about persons with autism, though autism is present in the list of disabilities.

It is an accepted fact that there are multiple security threats which pose a challenge to airport security officials, but it is a violation of human rights to trample upon the dignity of an individual or encroach upon the right to privacy. The security staff, the crew members and the human resource personnel need to have at least some formal training to deal with situations like this or at least some kind of orientation programs must be in place at the time of their recruitment. Unless appropriate and adequate programs, planning, and modern technical devices for security checks are provided, things are not going to get straightened.

There is a host of disability-related items, including adaptive equipment and the tools needed to assemble/disassemble it, service animals, ostomy supplies, and other medical items which a passenger has to bring with him. They are required to be screened in the most appropriate method. If a passenger doesn’t want the medicines to be x-rayed, he could request a visual inspection before the screening process begins.

For a personal search and screening process, a private screening must be done in order to avoid humiliation. Passengers who cannot stand without a mobility aid, cane, crutches, walker, or other device for five to seven seconds with arms raised above shoulder level can go for advanced imaging technology screening.

Advanced imaging is a scan that produces a 3-D full-body rendering (including private parts, but without facial features) and shows any contraband in x-ray. The security agent doing the scan cannot see or otherwise identify the passenger in question. Travelers who opt out of an advanced imaging scan, those who are unable to walk or stand for the required duration, or who set off existing metal detectors, can be asked to undergo a pat-down. Pat-downs can be done in a secondary screening area, or a private screening can be requested at any point in the security check by the passenger, an attendant or a family member.

The security department can provide a disposable paper drape for privacy and the attendant or family member is allowed to provide assistance at any time during the process, but those who assist may have to be re-screened as a result. Millimeter wave technology (non-ionizing) bounces electromagnetic waves off the body to create a black and white image, which is then pored over by safety experts to assess a passenger’s security threat.

For checking the wheelchairs, small machines to screen them can be used. For passengers who are unable to remove or put on their shoes, the use of alternative security procedures must be done. Moreover a helpline can be set up to assist travelers with disabilities and medical conditions where the helpline can call 72 hours ahead of the travel to give information about what to expect during screening.

I don’t think that a nation which is a nuclear power or has the potential of sending satellites to space would be devoid of such technology. It is another thing – the people living in such a country might be lacking in essential human sensitivity.

And the story does not end here. There is another side of the coin, from an over cautious and inconsiderate airport security staff to completely ignorant and negligent security staff of movie theaters, shopping malls and public places with an absolutely lackadaisical approach.

It is my personal experience that wherever I go on my wheelchair and security checks are required, they just let me go through without bothering to complete their duty. My wheelchair there becomes a gate pass and I am never made to go through the security checks. Recently I visited Dilli Haat, a place frequented by hundreds of people every day. At the gate where security checks were being done, the person said, “Madam aap rehne dijiye” (Madam you can go inside). The same thing happened when I went to the largest shopping mall of our capital city and when I went to Nirman Bhawan, New Delhi, a very important government building.

For the security guards a person on a wheelchair is not capable enough of harming the country and its people. What if I carried explosives with me and I blew up the entire place, killing thousands of people at one go?

So all this finally leads to a conclusion that either there would be a compromise of an individual’s dignity or the security of the nation would be compromised. What is the way out of this completely shameful and disappointing state of conditions!

Abha Khetarpal
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Abha Khetarpal is President of Cross of the Hurdles, an NGO looking after the needs of people with disabilities. She is a triple masters degree holder in English, Economics and Psychotherapy and Counseling. She provides free online counseling and education and employment advice to people with disabilities in India. 

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