Disabled Woman Beaten After Becoming Confused at TSA Checkpoint

June 30th should have been a really great day for Hannah Cohen. The 19-year-old woman was on her way home to Chattanooga, after having radiation treatments and surgery to remove a brain tumour at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. According to the Associated Press, the treatment she received at St. Jude left her “limited in her ability to talk, walk, stand, see and hear”, but she was medically cleared to fly home with her mother.

Content Note: Ableism, Violence, Assault by Authority Figures, Lack of Accessibility and Accommodations, Unjust Arrest, Airline Travel Issues

A white circular sign with a bold red border. The sign says, says "Stop: Security Check" in black block letters. Keyword: Hannah Cohen

Image Description: A white circular sign with a bold red border. The sign says, says “Stop: Security Check” in black block letters.

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While going through a security checkpoint at the Memphis International Airport, Hannah Cohen set off an alarm. The TSA agents and airport police manning the checkpoint wanted to do additional screening, but Hannah became confused and anxious. WREG Memphis reported:

“‘…she was reluctant — she didn’t understand what they were about to do,’ said her mother, Shirley Cohen.

Cohen said she tried to tell agents with the Transportation Security Administration that her 19-year-old daughter is partially deaf, blind in one eye, paralyzed and easily confused — but she said police kept her away from the security agents.

The confused and terrified young woman tried to run away, her mother said, ‘and agents violently took her to the ground…she’s trying to get away from them, but in the next instant, one of them had her down on the ground and hit her head on the floor,’ Cohen said. ‘There was blood everywhere.'”

Hannah Cohen and her family are suing the TSA, the Memphis Airport, and the Airport Police, alleging that she was discriminated against because of her disabilities and that there was a failure to provide proper accommodations for her during the screening.

TSA spokesperson Sari Koshetz said about the incident:

“Passengers can call ahead of time to learn more about the screening process for their particular needs or medical situation.”

Well, it’s good to know that they can call this line, not that they must. This is an important point, and it’s also important to remember that the TSA itself said “can” instead of “must”. It’s in line with information on the TSA website about the screening process for disabled passengers. The website explicitly says in the section devoted to each kind of disability that a TSA disability card or medical documentation can be presented to the TSA agent at the checkpoint and the disabled traveller can expect accommodation – nowhere does it say that prior arrangements have to be made.

That’s one important point. I think that there are three more to be made here:

Expectation of Accommodation

Forget that the TSA website lists what accommodations the agency can provide for a variety of disabilities without the requirement that disabled travellers call in advance of the travel date and discuss their needs – even if it didn’t, in a country that has had federal legislation in place for over 25 years requiring businesses (including government-funded services) to make the required accommodations so that disabled people can access their services, one would expect that TSA agents would be trained in how to deliver services in a fully accessible manner. As Kim Sauder said over at her blog, “Crippled Scholar”, disabled people should not be required to announce themselves in advance so that proper accommodation can be made available – it should just be available.

Granted, some people do have very specialized needs that require more accommodation than usual, and in those circumstances sometimes it is advisable to call a business ahead of time. However, that isn’t the issue here. Presumably, since Hannah Cohen has been making this trip to Memphis for treatment for 17 years, she and her mother presented either the TSA card or necessary documentation to explain the need for what must was likely already a checkpoint experience that required some level of accommodation; even if they didn’t, Hannah would have presented as someone with at least an obvious physical disability. It’s reasonable to expect that TSA agents have training in how to work with someone whose noncompliance is coming along with signs of confusion or overwhelm (particularly if there are signs of other disability or a caregiver with the person is telling them why) – the TSA website says that accommodation can be expected for (by name) Alzheimer’s, dementia, aphasia, brain injury, autism, and intellectual disability. Accommodations include, according to the website, not separating the person from travelling companion and opportunity to inform the TSA agent about the best way to approach and conduct the screening.

Once Hannah Cohen started to become anxious about additional screening, these accommodations were denied, escalating the situation and resulting in her assault, arrest, and a night in prison.

Nowhere on the website does it say, “The TSA may deny accommodation at its discretion.” Imagine the shitstorm if it did. That would be breaking the law.

What happened to Hannah Cohen was illegal as well as disgusting. Train your agents to do what you’re telling the public that you’ve trained them to do, TSA.

Accommodation, Exception, and Understanding

The TSA website is also careful to say that while it accommodates the needs of disabled people, disabled people will still have to screened. Fair enough.

And Hannah Cohen did set off an alarm, so they wanted more information. Fair enough.

What’s *not* “fair enough”, and not even remotely productive from the TSA’s point of view, even if the agents haven’t been provided with the proper training, is their and airport police’s insistence on escalating a situation where a multiply disabled individual is obviously confused and agitated by the steps that need to happen next in the screening. Especially when there’s a caregiver there that the person trusts and that can assist with the process.

There’s no need for TSA agents to assume that every disabled person who goes through the checkpoint must be cognitively disabled because of the presence of the physical disabilities – long-time readers know that this is one of my pet peeves.

But in Hannah Cohen’s particular situation, there was also no need to assume, when her mother was there to verify, that her multiple disabilities didn’t mean that was perhaps also something that prevented her from understanding what was going on. It should be important to the TSA that passengers, disabled or non-disabled, understand the processes at checkpoints and why certain requests are made of them – not just to minimize anxiety for all passengers in transit (travel is stressful enough and *anyone* can lose their temper and become agitated when under enough stress), but because people have rights and responsibilities as airline travelers going through a checkpoint and need to understand them if the process is to move smoothly.

Even disabled people, TSA.

When I did rights training with intellectually disabled people, I used every tool that I could to help them to understand their rights and responsibilities. The TSA, trying to do their job by doing enhanced screening with Hannah Cohen, had a terrific tool at their disposal – not only could Hannah’s mother have acted as a calming influence in an unfamiliar situation, she could have been the person that helped to allay Hannah’s confusion about what was going on enough to get her to cooperate, give the agents what they wanted, and get the whole thing ended without incident.

But the airport police separated them, denying an accommodation that the TSA said it could provide and needlessly escalating an already stressful encounter. Congrats on a job well done, officers – look where it got you.

This Shouldn’t Have Happened to Hannah Cohen…or to Anyone

The media is outraged that this happened to a disabled teenager.

It should be outraged that this happened to anyone.

This “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality is sickening. Even if Hannah Cohen had been a non-disabled person, her only “crime” was that she refused to comply with a TSA request. They didn’t have proof that she was dangerous, or even had intention of doing anything illegal, but for that she was tackled and had her head bashed against the floor until her face was battered and bloodied. She was then arrested, dragged out of the airport, booked, and spent a night in prison.

The fact that Hannah Cohen is disabled adds another level of complexity to the story, but the ultimate message would be the same if she was non-disabled: This is not the way that *people* should be treated. Not disabled people. Not non-disabled people. Not anyone.

Shame on the TSA agents, the airport police, the Memphis police, and everyone involved in the events that put Hannah Cohen in jail on the night that she should have been celebrating the end of her cancer treatment.

Hannah Cohen is suing for $100 000. If I was her, I’d be asking for a hell of a lot more.

 

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  • Cheryl Green

    THANK YOU for blogging about it! Brutality + victim-blaming. As a lot of people have pointed out in other places, you can call ahead to talk about accommodations. But who calls ahead to ask, “What should I do to not be beaten?” What good would calling ahead have done after 17 years of this same travel route? I called TSA once to discuss brain injury-related accommodations, and they outright told me I can’t have them unless I opt to use a wheelchair. I pointed out their website says they cover all disabilities, and my request was reasonable. No luck. So yeah, again, how does calling ahead help, aside from TSA trying to brush off responsibility for escalating and assaulting? UGH!

  • I am appalled, sickened, sad, angry and perplexed. Were those POS agents fired? They actually deserve to be jailed. Mom tried numerous times to explain her daughter’s situation, but they were so hard up to beat somebody that they wouldn’t listen. May the Cohen’s come out of this very rich people….courtesy of the denying, excuse-ridden TSA.