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I Use A Wheelchair, What More Proof Do You Need?

I routinely joke with my friends, “I’m female, disabled and of Lebanese heritage; it’s like a reverse triple threat. There’s almost nothing I haven’t heard. I’m an open target.” I have indeed been on the receiving end of some truly perplexing sentiments and statements from strangers and I’ve been in countless odd and ridiculous situations. Of all of the weirdness I’ve seen, heard and experienced, my favourite WTF moment has to be the time that I was asked to walk through a metal detector at the airport.

For those of you who may not know, I have cerebral palsy, spastic quadriplegia. I have two wheelchairs, one manual and one electric – both top of the line. My spasticity is no joke. I had intensive therapy as a child, so I’ve learned to compensate quite well, to the extent that people may not know how involved my disability is, to look at me. But there is no mistaking that my challenges are genuine; I don’t use a wheelchair because I can’t be bothered to walk.

When I was seventeen, I went to Chicago during March break with a friend to visit my aunt and uncle. We flew in and out of O’Hare airport; only the biggest airport in the United States, so, you know, no big deal. I must preface this by saying that I of course travel with a doctor’s note of documentation and by this point I had flown many times before, within Canada, to Europe and it was not my first time flying to Chicago either. I know the drill at the airport – a female security officer gives me a manual pat down and sends me on my merry way.

But this particular time it was not that simple. I was flying out of O’Hare and my aunt was coming with my friend and I all the way to our gate. When we got to the security checkpoint, they took off my shoes to put them through the scanner and a female officer brought me off to the side for a pat down; so far, so good. She went through almost the entire process and stopped suddenly to say, “I need you to stand up and walk through the metal detector please.”

I was a little shocked, as was my aunt and my friend. We asked for clarification and she said, “I need to check the back of your legs, from your thigh to your knee. Can you walk through the metal detector please?”

“No, I can’t.” I said. “I can lift up my legs, so you can put your hand underneath.”

“But it really would be better if you could just stand up and walk through,” she persisted.

“I have a disability, I can’t walk. This chair I’m sitting in is worth several thousand dollars and it’s not borrowed,” I said.

“But it’s only a few steps…”

“I know. But as I said before, I am unable to walk, even a few steps. I can’t do it. The only thing I could do is stand on the spot, but you need to give me my shoes back and I need my friend to help me stand.”

“We can’t give you your shoes back until we’re done with the security check, Miss. You need to stand without them. Your friend can’t help you either.”

“Well then I’m sorry, I can’t stand,” I said. “If you need to check the backs of my legs between my hip and my knee, I can lift my legs so you can pat them down. I cannot stand without physical assistance and I cannot stand without my shoes. I won’t be able to hold my balance and I’ll slip and fall before I even get all the way up. So you either need to check the backs of my legs with your hands, or you need to just let me through.”

I was only seventeen and this was as assertive as I was willing to get. This back and forth went on for nearly ten minutes. Both my friend and my aunt were reiterating my statements. We had to tread lightly though; one should never anger a security officer with a gun and a baton fastened to her belt.

Even after showing her my doctor’s note and being glared at by airport staff for dragging it on so long, she huffed and puffed and very begrudgingly agreed to allow me to lift my legs. She rolled her eyes at me and sucked her teeth as I lifted each leg high enough for her to fit her hand underneath me right to the base of my hip. With one last roll of her eyes, she gave me my shoes and waved us on.

My aunt went on a little crusade after that, complaining vehemently to every O’Hare official she could get a hold of. Thankfully, the incident has never repeated itself in Chicago, or anywhere else I’ve been flying into or out of.

Layla Guse Salah
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Tags: accessible travel