Amy Ascher Linde, an Atlanta mother and businesswoman who was born without a left hand and has worn a prosthetic since she was 11, has been through similar humiliations almost every time she's flown since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The episodes have been demeaning, infuriating "and take your breath away." The psychological discomfort lingers, and the loss of dignity is unnecessary, she said.
When she arrived at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport for a business trip soon after 9/11, dressed in just a suit jacket and pants, TSA agents tried to get her to remove the jacket and pulled up her sleeve to see where the artificial hand attached to her arm. She kept telling them: "I can't take this off; I'm going to be naked," as they pressed on. Had another Girl Scout mother from her troop not been nearby, "I would have broken down and just cried."
Last winter, she and two friends were taking a 50th birthday ski trip when TSA agents in Denver wanted her to go through a special scanner. She'd previously found the experience painful, because agents twisted her arm to get four different views of the prosthesis. So, this time, instead of going through the imaging machine, she offered to remove the artificial arm in a private room.
A TSA agent came in "with one of those gray trays" used to X-ray carry-ons, laptops and shoes, and left with her prosthesis. "I cannot tell you how my stomach felt – I thought the whole purpose of going into the screening room was for the privacy, not to have them take my prosthesis somewhere else. They don't dismantle people who have arms and take their limbs elsewhere. You don't have to check your arm at the door. To me, this is my arm."
"It makes you shake. It makes you become irrational. It makes me angry – the lack of control."
Humiliation has been identified as a cause or contributor to many psychosocial illnesses, "and can lead to anger, at times violence and uncooperative behavior," said Dr. Amir Afkhami, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
There hasn't been as much research on the effects of short-lived humiliation, but Afkhami said what Sawyer and Bossi experienced is comparable to the shame and humiliation some patients feel during medical visits "because their defects and inadequacies and shortcomings are exposed." Just as they may avoid doctors, they might similarly stop flying to avoid exposing medical defects to a TSA employee.
One of the highest-profile cases has been that of breast cancer survivor Cathy Bossi, a flight attendant with 32 years of service, who was told to remove her breast prosthesis during a pat-down at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. A female TSA agent "put her full hand on my breast and said, 'what's this?' I said, 'It's a prosthesis because I've had breast cancer,'" Bossi recalled. "And she said, 'You'll need to show me that.'" Bossi said the incident was too horrific to report at the time, although she subsequently contacted the flight attendants' union.
Afkhami said these stories provide a valuable teachable moment for the TSA.