Getting through an airport can be stressful at the best of times but it’s still more difficult when you have to deal with security searches. These can be embarrassing, uncomfortable or even painful for many disabled people. What can you expect of security staff? What are your rights and how can you help them do their job without facing unreasonable distress?
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Basic Security Checks
Everybody intending to board an aeroplane has to go through basic security checks and that’s no different for disabled people, though some slightly different rules apply. If you need liquid medication you should keep it in a clear plastic bag with you other liquids to show to security staff but it will not count against your standard liquids allowance. All medication should be in its original packaging.
As a disabled person you have the right to request that reasonable adjustments be made to accommodate any extra difficulties you face. If you have a mental health condition or learning disorder which you think may complicate your communication with staff it’s best to declare it right away to avoid any misunderstandings. If you are asked to do something that you find physically difficult, such as removing footwear, you can ask for a chair to be brought to you.
Because security checks may take a little longer when you factor in things like this, it’s a good idea to arrive early for your flight. Don’t feel rushed once you’re there. Your flight will ordinarily wait for you even if you are delayed in security.
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Ordinarily, all passengers have to pass through a gate to check that they’re not carrying any metal objects. If you have a walking stick you will need to give this up when you do so. If you are unsteady on your feet you can ask a security team member to stand on each side of the gate so that you can hold their hands as you go through.
If you receive wheelchair assistance in the airport you won’t have to go through the gate but will instead be subject to a body search. Staff are required to ask you if you are in pain anywhere. They will have to touch you anyway (avoiding your private parts) but they will usually be gentle. Make sure you tell them immediately if something is too painful or if you are asked to move in a way that you can’t manage.
In UK airports and in most international airports security staff do not have the right to ask you to remove clothing in a public area in order to show them a part of your body they’re suspicious about. If they make a request like this, ask them to take you into a private room. Remember that you always have the right to refuse a search, though if you refuse to cooperate when there are reasonable grounds for suspicion then you may lose your right to fly.
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Prostheses and Security
Flying with a prosthesis can make life complicated. Silicone prostheses are not usually detected during searches and some metal alloy joint replacements are invisible to metal detectors on standard settings, but some airport metal detectors are more sensitive. In rare cases passengers are asked to remove prostheses. If this happens to you, request a private room if you need one.
Obviously not all prostheses can be removed. The usual security policy is simply to ensure that they are genuine. Although you are not legally obliged to do so, it is a good idea to carry a letter from your doctor explaining about your prosthesis. This will usually allow you to pass through security trouble-free.
The new body scanners being introduced in airports don’t look for metal like traditional ones but instead present an image of your body. This is initially checked by a computer and will only become visible to security staff if the computer notices something unusual. Images are not stored in connection with identifying details so there will be no record kept of what your body looks like.
Despite the above, many disabled people are uncomfortable about these scanners. They may highlight anatomical differences which you would rather keep private. If you don’t want to go through such a search you are within your rights to refuse but you will normally have to go through a manual search as an alternative. It’s up to you to decide which you feel is less intrusive.
Despite these problems and the occasional newspaper stories about what happens when things go wrong, airport security checks are generally well adapted to disabled people. UK airport staff are mostly well trained and you are unlikely to experience serious difficulty.