Q&A With Katharine Gordon: TSA Diabetes Policy

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With school vacation approaching, this week the Joslin Blog is dedicated to safe travels with diabetes.

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 involved.

What do you do as a Legal Advocate for the ADA who works with the TSA?

Since the TSA’s founding [in 2001], the American Diabetes Association has been in communication with TSA because diabetes in particular really does affect airport security screening, where 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 actually 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 or do more than go through the administrative procedures. However in my experience, very often the folks at OCR are able to really get to the bottom of the problem.

Is everyone who works at the TSA trained to recognize diabetes technology?

They’re supposed to be. They do all receive some training in disabilities. Recently, 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.

One of the big issues is:  “Is everybody receiving the training that they need? Are they really getting the reinforcements that they need? Is it effective training? If they are overloaded with information, how can we make sure that they actually are using their training and complying with it?”

For the most part, in the vast majority of cases, the policies themselves aren’t inappropriate. However, one of the problems is that sometimes customers are not aware of them, or TSA officers themselves are not aware of them. Sometimes, if a traveler has an object that officers haven’t seen before, they’re resistant to whatever the person is asking to be done. That can be a real challenge.

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. I would say that most problems occur when there’s a lack of communication with the TSA officer who doesn’t really want to listen to what the traveler is saying. And that’s when the conflicts come up. If TSA officers could demonstrate more respectful dialogue, I think that almost any issues that people with diabetes would have while travelling 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 just because you do have sharps, and you do have other medical devices, but for the most part people get through pretty easily without problems. But if you have some reason to think that that might not happen, there’s something called TSA Cares (1-855-787-2227) where you can call 72 hours in advance and you can ask for support at the airport. So let’s say that your elderly grandmother is travelling by herself. You can actually ask for some assistance at the airport to facilitate the screening process so that she’s not in as vulnerable of a position.

If someone wanted to know whether or not a certain pump or CGM could go through the imaging systems, would TSA be able to provide advice on that, or is that something that travelers should look up beforehand?

Travelers should look to their manufacturer, because different manufacturers have different policies.

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 pump on and you have an OmniPod on your left arm. Theoretically, you should only have the pat down of your left arm, not the entire pat down. 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.

So you’re saying these are the things that people should be able to expect. But are these expectations a reality? 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 they thought they needed?

I’ve heard infrequent incidences of this. And if they occur, we really, really recommend that people call 1-800-DIABETES and ask how to speak with a Legal Advocate.  We can speak with them about it and give them information on their rights, and as part of that, we always encourage them to contact the Office for Civil Rights. 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. However, it certainly is not a perfect system and we rely on travelers to let us know when it’s not working so that we can advocate with TSA to either change policies or to ensure that there is better training.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I think the biggest thing is being prepared. We have a tip sheet that you can print out, we have a variety of resources on our website about travelling and diabetes, and the TSA has a tip sheet you can print out. Print those out and have them with you so you can know what to do and know what to expect and know what your rights are. At the same time, 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.

Katharine Gordon is Director of the American Diabetes Association's Legal Advocate Program. This program provides assistance and information to people experiencing discrimination because of diabetes in schools, the workplace, jails and prisons, and other areas of daily life.

But at the same time, most people fly without incident, so concerns about TSA shouldn’t dissuade people from making any of their plans. We have all heard TSA stories about a wide range of issues. However, we never want these stories to limit people’s lives. We want to find out about all problems so that they can be addressed.

**Remember when you’re travelling, or even in your day-to-day life, it’s always best to have a diabetes alert somewhere on your person, whether in the form of a bracelet, tattoo, or wallet card. Check out the ADA’s printable diabetes alert card and basic info sheet about diabetes and treatments.

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