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Navigate TSA with a Medical Disability, Condition or Device

by Mary Gallagher, RN, MSN, CCRN

Apr 1, 2018
April 2018

TO ENSURE OUR SECURITY, all travelers are required to undergo Transportation Security Administration screening at the airport checkpoint. Screening is intended to prevent prohibited items and other threats to transportation security from entering the sterile area of the airport and are developed in response to information on threats. TSA uses unpredictable security measures throughout the airport, and no individual, including those with medical conditions, is guaranteed expedited screening.

Standard screening requires passengers to remove all items and place them on the X-ray belt.

However, passengers with TSA PreCheck can usually speed through security without needing to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts and light jackets. You can apply online and then schedule an appointment at any of 380-plus enrollment centers for a 10-minute, in-person background check and finger printing. Then just add your KTN or PassID to your ticket.

If you are approved for TSA PreCheck, you will undergo screening by technology or a patdown. TSA officers may swab your hands, mobility aids, equipment or other external devices to test for explosives.

In 2017 the TSA introduced a notification card for people with disabilities so they can confidently communicate their needs to a TSA officer. Travelers apply for the card and bring it with them to the security checkpoint. The cards have a space to enter information about relevant health conditions, disabilities or medical devices. Having this card does not exempt you from screening.

You may provide the officer with the TSA notification card or other medical documentation from your physician on the physician’s letterhead to describe your condition. Those with a disability or medical condition are not required to remove their shoes, but the shoes must undergo additional screening including visual/physical inspection and explosives trace detection. You can request to be seated during this procedure.

Inform the TSA officer of your ability to stand or walk independently. If you can stand with your arms above your head for five to seven seconds without support, you may undergo screening from advanced imaging technology or walk through a metal detector if you are able to walk through without support.

Walkers, crutches, canes and other mobility aids must undergo X-ray screening. A TSA officer will inspect the item if it cannot fit through the X-ray machine. Let the TSA officer know you will need the device immediately after it is screened. Wheelchairs and scooters are screened and tested for traces of explosives; screening includes seat cushions and all removable and non-removable items.

If you cannot walk or stand, you will undergo a pat-down screening while seated. If you can stand but not walk, you can stand near the wheelchair during a pat-down. A pat-down screening is also used if alarms sound on the metal detector or image technology.

Inform the TSA officer if you have an artificial knee or hip or other metal implants such as a pacemaker or defibrillator. Check with your physician prior to flying. You will need the TSA notification card or medical documentation to describe your condition. You will not go through the metal detector, and if you choose not to go through the advanced imaging technology, you will undergo a pat-down.

Before screening, inform the TSA officer if you have a bone growth stimulator, spinal stimulator, neuro-stimulator, port, feeding tube, insulin pump, ostomy or other medical device attached to your body and where it is located. Submit the device for X-ray if you can safely disconnect it. Consult with the manufacturer to determine if it can pass through the X-ray, metal detector or advanced imaging technology. If you cannot disconnect from the device, it may require additional screening; devices located in sensitive areas are subject to careful and gentle inspection.

If you have an ostomy, you can be screened without having to empty or expose it through advanced imaging technology, metal detector or a pat-down. The ostomy pouch is subject to additional screening and may require you to do a self pat-down of the pouch outside your clothing, followed by a test of your hands for trace of explosives.

You may also undergo a pat-down of areas that do not include your ostomy pouch. You may encounter screening inconsistencies among U.S. airports. The rules are the same everywhere for travelers and TSA enforcement; however, sometimes the officer does not understand the rules. The best thing to do is to cooperate and, if possible, throw the object in question into the trash can. The important thing is to know the rules and follow them. If challenged by the TSA, understand why and cooperate. It’s all about your safety and that of other passengers.

For assistance, compliments or complaints contact TSA Cares at 1 855 787 2227, weekdays 8 a.m.–11 p.m. Eastern Time; or email [email protected] weekends and holidays, 9 a.m.–8 p.m. Automated information is offered in 12 languages. Call 72 hours prior to traveling to request assistance of a Passenger Support Specialist at the checkpoint. If a PSS is not available, you may ask for a Supervisory TSA Officer at the checkpoint.

The TSA website at tsa.gov provides a blog discussing advances in security and innovation at airports worldwide, travel tips, a real ID section (as checkpoint ID requirements change) and a disabilities and medical conditions section.

The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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