Disability and Representation

Changing the Cultural Conversation

Guest Post: No Apologies

Following is a guest post by my husband, Bob Rottenberg, about his experience of going through airport security with disabilities. Bob uses a knee brace and has some age-related hearing loss, with tinnitus in his right ear. He travels frequently between the coasts.

No Apologies

I’m traveling a lot these days, mostly flying to and from California to spend time with my very frail and very old father in New York City. On the average, I make the round trip once a month. This means going through airport security twice (coming and going) in the span of a week or so.

I’m almost 69, in good physical health overall, but there are two things that slow me down.

One is my hearing, which is still OK, but my right ear isn’t what it used to be, so I’m increasingly affected by background noise. The other is my right knee, which is ready to have some torn cartilage removed. As a result, when I travel I wear a fairly substantial brace on that knee. A brace that always sets off the body scanner alarms.

I’ve become both resigned to and accepting of the pat-down by the TSA screeners – knowing that the only thing they’ll find is a knee brace, which is not a problem for them.

Because I know that I have to go through this process, I try very hard to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare. This allows me to be as relaxed as possible in a very stressful environment. And it allows me to cooperate with the screeners, and let them know what’s going on for me.

Today, because the New York airport didn’t have the latest screening technology, I had to undergo a “full-body” pat-down. The agent started explaining what he was going to do, asking if I understood and assented. The problem was, even though I knew what he was going to do, I couldn’t really understand what he was saying, and didn’t want to simply nod in agreement. Part of it was my hearing, which is always compromised in a noisy environment. The other was the agent’s speech, which was both unclear, due to his accent, and coming at me at a very rapid pace. So I kept asking him to repeat what he had said, because I literally could not make sense of his words, and I didn’t want to get anything wrong, and risk setting off more alarm bells and having to sit on the Group W bench with the other hardened criminals – and, of course, risk missing my flight home.

At that point, a female agent came along and, perhaps realizing that I wasn’t understanding the first agent’s attempts at the King’s English, repeated everything he had said, but more clearly. The exam proceeded, took all of one minute, and I was cleared for takeoff.

So what did I learn from this? That it’s important for me to not apologize about my “condition;” that’s it’s OK to for me to slow things down, to make sure I understand everything that’s being asked of me, and to then do everything I can to make the job of the agents go more smoothly – all so that my day can proceed more smoothly.

And today, this worked. I refused to apologize for my condition – for my less-than-adequate hearing, and for my knee-in-need-of-surgery – but I was completely willing to let them know what I needed, in as non-confrontational manner as possible. This is who I am right now, and I accept my condition fully. But I also realized that I did not want to make my condition a “problem” for the agents. This is why I insisted on taking the small amount of extra time to make sure I heard and understood what their needs were. I’ve seen too many instances where the lack of clarity leads to unfortunate outcomes.

Not feeling rushed certainly helps me to take full responsibility for myself in these moments. I can imagine how I would feel if, under pressure to make that flight in the next ten minutes, I had to do combat with agents whose words I could not clearly understand. I take the approach that they are there to help me get to my destination safely. And my responsibility to them is to be as clear as I can about my own needs, so that we can both get on with our day in as pleasant a way as possible.

And this is what I learned: Just as they shouldn’t have to apologize for simply doing their jobs, I shouldn’t have to apologize for being who I am.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


  1. 9/10/2013 | 8:35 am Permalink

    Thanks. It’s good to hear from you. You are lucky that asking for a slower process worked out well. Everyone is in such a hurry (or so it seems) that sometimes it feels as if we are all living in a war zone. I read a horrific story yesterday about an elderly man who died needlessly, and from even the most cursory reading, it was apparent that simply some patience would have defused a terrible situation and spared a life.

    Courtesy on everyones’ part goes a long way. Don’t want to lose sight of that!

  2. 9/10/2013 | 1:34 pm Permalink

    I don’t think I can ever come to terms with the idea that consenting to a full body pat-down should ever be an acceptable necessity just to purchase private transportation.

    • 9/11/2013 | 1:22 pm Permalink

      I’ve made my peace with the whole airport security thing. Yes, it’s a terrible inconvenience that can be offensive…and, yes, it’s another example of how terrified we’ve become of the possibility of terrorism. But I’d just as soon get to my destination in one piece. I’d rather submit to the screening than be constantly worrying about the plane blowing up!

  3. 9/14/2013 | 6:33 am Permalink

    Airport security is nothing more than an elaborate humiliation ritual and a very public way to assert social control. This is needed but for people with a disability security in the form of a pat down you experienced is a strange ritual. I have been flying for 35+ years and every time I fly I get patted down. There is no predicting the nature of the pat down. Sometimes the TSA is aggressive and others times I get a wink and a nod. What is too often assumed however is that as a person that uses a wheelchair I am deemed incompetent. More than once TSA people appear shocked I travel alone. More than a few have made nasty comments. Flying is miserable for all but particularly for people with a disability. I do not envy your coast to coast commute