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On The Front Lines

Citing Abusive Behavior by TSA Agents, Rutherford Institute Calls on TSA to Ensure that Agents Are Trained to Deal with Disabled Airline Passengers

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Citing numerous incidents of abusive behavior on the part of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees against airline passengers in wheelchairs and other disabled travelers, John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, is calling on TSA Secretary John Pistole to ensure that TSA agents are properly trained in respecting the rights of passengers with special needs, especially those in wheelchairs. Whitehead contacted Pistole on behalf of one disabled passenger in particular, Mia Gambino, a transgendered female who was allegedly subjected to disparaging treatment and highly inappropriate remarks about her disability, race and gender by a TSA agent at Los Angeles International Airport.

The Institute’s letter to TSA Secretary Pistole is available at

“As if it weren’t bad enough that airline passengers are being subjected to virtual strip searches and aggressive pat downs by government agents, disabled passengers are being subjected to even greater abuses,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Americans should never be treated like this. The TSA must correct this matter immediately, and the place to start is an effective training program to ensure that this sort of conduct is eradicated.”

On March 21, 2011, Mia Gambino—a white, transgendered female who suffers from a neurological disorder that causes paraplegia and has resulted in her being confined to a wheelchair—arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Qantas Airways Flight 107. Ms. Gambino was entering the United States from Australia, and her final destination was New York City. Upon deplaning and before she could board her flight to New York City, Gambino was required to pass through a TSA security checkpoint. However, as the Institute’s letter to Secretary Pistole points out, during the course of the security screening, Gambino was allegedly subjected to disparaging treatment and remarks by a TSA agent in clear violation of TSA policy. Specifically, despite TSA protocol that wheelchair-bound passengers should not be required to transfer from their wheelchair to another chair or be lifted out of their chair during the inspection process, Gambino was ordered to lift herself out of her chair in order for the chair to be searched. When Gambino objected to the departure from protocol, the TSA agent immediately called for a cavity search, reporting to her supervisor that Gambino was refusing to stand up. Prior to the arrival of a TSA supervisor, Gambino was allegedly subjected to further threats and insults by the TSA agent relating to her disability, race (the TSA agent, who was black, stated that “white” people, like Mia Gambino, use wheelchairs so that “black” people will have to push them around) and gender (the TSA agent referred to the transgendered Gambino as “that there he-she”).

Unfortunately, as Whitehead pointed out in his letter to Pistole, Gambino’s experience at the hands of poorly trained TSA agents was not an isolated incident. In June 2011, TSA employees reportedly ordered a 95-year-old leukemia patient in a wheelchair to remove her adult diaper so that agents could search her. Ninety-year-old Marian Peterson, also confined to a wheelchair, was pulled out of line for a random security check and according to her son, Joe, TSA agents “groped her. All of her body: her crotch, her breasts and everything else.” She was also made to get out of her wheelchair and stand with her arms outstretched for over 10 minutes. The Rutherford Institute is demanding that Pistole immediately address the stark deficiencies in TSA training and hiring protocol among his employees.


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