BBC - Ouch! (disability) - Features - False alarm

Home > Features > False alarm

False alarm

by Adam Hills

1st August 2005

As I gathered my belongings and made my way from the security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport last week, I noticed the look on my manager's face - simultaneously bemused and exasperated at what she'd just witnessed.

She had been a first-time spectator of a rather non-standard ten-minute screening process, a procedure that wavered between a slapstick comedy routine and an impromptu strip tease. And it all came about because my artificial foot had once again set off the airport metal detector.
I heaved my carry-on luggage onto each shoulder, placed my wallet, phone and keys into the appropriate pockets, re-adjusted the hem of my jeans, and with a cheery grin said, "Welcome to my world".

In the days following the worst terrorist attacks America (and therefore, apparently, the world) had ever seen, travelling with a metal-infused disability was an interesting study in human behaviour. Whether wheelchair, arm, leg, or artificial hip, the reactions from uniformed security guards were, well, relatively uniform.

Immediate tension at the alarming and alarmist BEEP of the metal detector, followed by slight embarrassment and awkwardness upon discovering that the offending object was in fact a prosthetic device. I flew through Heathrow airport on September 15 2001, and while fully expecting to be asked to remove my leg for security purposes, was surprised and a little shocked to be waved through with no inspection whatsoever.

In my live stand-up shows, I summed up the security guard's quandary as: "I don't care if the plane goes down, I don't want to offend a spastic".

In the years since, however, I have noticed a distinct sea-change in the behaviour of airport sentinels when faced with a potentially terror-inducing fake limb, particularly in America.

Oh, the lead-up is the same: Upon instigating the BEEP, I try not to look surprised or panicked (as if I've been caught doing something illegal), smug (as if I have the capacity to blow up everyone around me) or annoyed (as if I'm already edgy and this has been the final straw).

When it BEEPS and every eye turns my way, I say in a loud and proud voice: "It's OK, I have an artificial leg", at which point every eye turns away.

Recently, however, there has been no need for my pronouncement. Once or twice I have been pre-empted by an extremely polite security guard asking the question: "Excuse me sir, do you have a prosthetic device of any kind?"

The first time someone asked me that I nearly hugged him. "Hurrah!" I thought, "Not only has he given me the benefit of the doubt that I may not be a bomb-toting extremist, but he has also used the appropriate terminology." He could so easily have asked me: "Hey buddy, you some sort of retard?"

Obviously someone somewhere has conducted a seminar on "How To Deal With a Potentially Dangerous Mutant", and invited security guards the world over to attend. And so they should. Disabled people are just as capable of terror as able-bodied people, and the extra space provided by a missing limb gives them more room to stow explosives.

If famed World War Two pilot Sir Douglas Bader managed to fool his German captors by smuggling food into his POW camp hidden in his artificial legs, then surely a potential bomber could do the same?

And so it came to pass last week, as I transited LAX en route to the Montreal Comedy Festival with my manager in tow, that I once again BEEPED.

I was led to a roped-off area by an extremely polite young man, who asked such questions as: "Where is the prosthetic?" and "Do you mind if I just grab it for a second?" and "Does it cause you any pain at all?"

He then brought out a request I've never before encountered. "Sir, I'm going to have to swab the area where the prosthesis meets the skin for traces of explosives." After ten minutes or so the procedure ended, although not before I had removed my shoes and belt, unbuckled my jeans and almost toppled over while trying to balance.

Once it was ascertained that I was of no danger, I was farewelled with a smile and a "Thank you very much for your patience, sir. I hope you have a nice flight". I strode towards my manager, safe in the knowledge that every passenger was thoroughly and sensitively screened, regardless of ability or disability.

As we headed towards our gate, my manager asked why it was necessary for my prosthesis to be swabbed. I told her it was to ensure that I hadn't hidden explosives in my shoe. She laughed and told me what I should have said:

"Mate, I won't make that mistake again. How do you think I lost the foot in the first place?"

Bookmark with...

What are these?

Live community panel

Our blog is the main place to go for all things Ouch! Find info, comment, articles and great disability content on the web via us.

Mat and Liz
Listen to our regular razor sharp talk show online, or subscribe to it as a podcast. Spread the word: it's where disability and reality almost collide.

More from the BBC

BBC Sport

Disability Sport

All the latest news from the paralympics.

Peter White

In Touch

News and views for people who are blind or partially sighted.

BBC Radio 4

You & Yours

Weekdays 12.40pm. Radio 4's consumer affairs programme.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.