TSA Disability and Multicultural Coalition marks major milestone

Thursday, September 29, 2022
TSA Administrator David Pekoske and Christine Griggs, Assistant Administrator for Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement (bottom photo), addressed coalition members with assistance from two American Sign Language interpreters.

The 20th Annual TSA Disability and Multicultural Coalition Conference marked a major milestone for TSA, celebrating one of its strongest and longest partnerships since the agency’s inception. The annual conference brought together TSA and coalition leadership to celebrate a year of important wins and discuss security screening news and program updates.

The coalition includes advocacy and community-based organizations representing 450 multicultural and religious communities, people with disabilities and medical conditions, civil rights and civil liberties advocates and federal government partners across the country. For 20 years TSA’s Disability and Multicultural Branch has collaborated with the coalition to learn, improve and enhance the agency’s security practices, making them more inclusive and safe for all travelers.

Disability and Multicultural Branch Manager Supriya Raman said, “The coalition is our way of sharing information with the different communities about what we do at TSA, and at the same time, also hear from them about what's working for them and what's not. While the coalition is an information sharing approach, the other important piece is we have access to the subject matter expertise of these organizations to help us develop training products for our workforce.”

The virtual 20th Annual TSA Disability and Multicultural Coalition Conference
The virtual 20th Annual TSA Disability and Multicultural Coalition Conference honored this year’s awardees and discussed important program updates. (Graphic provided by TSA SCPA)

The conference kicked off with an air of excitement as Administrator David Pekoske delivered the keynote address.

“This year marks 20 years of ongoing engagement with our coalition partners,” Pekoske said to more than 50 coalition groups. “It is a testament to your steadfast collaboration and our commitment to keeping you aware and appraised of what is happening at TSA.”

This year’s virtual conference highlighted airport screening-related improvements the coalition helped make possible, including removing gender considerations when validating traveler identification, modernizing TSA PreCheck® enrollment to be more inclusive, updating the screening the procedure for body scanning related pat downs, testing gender neutral algorithms for body scanning technology, updating procedures to further clarify screening for passengers traveling with breast milk and a plan to increase Passenger Screening Specialists at airports nationwide.

Christine Griggs, Assistant Administrator for Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement, shared how the conference highlighted the importance and value of the coalition’s expertise to TSA, especially as the agency rolls out new technologies later this year. The Disability and Multicultural Branch invites coalition partners to test and give feedback on how the technology would impact their communities. This partnership has made significant impacts modifying TSA’s policy and operating procedures.

Executive Director for Traveler Engagement Jose Bonilla highlighted important projects TSA is working on, including improving TSA Cares and the Passenger Support Specialist programs, which offer help to travelers who may need additional assistance with screening. 

A TSA officer performs a pat down on a passenger in a wheelchair
A TSA officer performs a pat down on a passenger in a wheelchair. (Picture courtesy of TSA SCPA)

“If we have a question, we'll send it out to the coalition and ask, ‘Here is a concern that was raised. What are your opinions?’ And then depending on what they say, we try find the common denominator there. We recognize that we cannot do everything everyone is asking for. So what's the common denominator? What is it that we can do within the framework and without compromising our security mission?” Raman explained.  

The branch often plays a silent role in TSA’s efforts to adapt screening policies when confronting issues in the field.

TSA strives to remain agile and adaptive in a changing security transportation environment. The coalition

supports these efforts by enhancing TSA’s procedures to support traveler engagement while maintaining security standards.

This year TSA recognized the following organizations for their important work protecting the freedom of movement for all travelers.

Multicultural Coalition Community Partner AwardeesThe Sikh Coalition, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and United Sikhs

For two years, these Sikh organizations worked closely with TSA to create and update policies for respectfully interacting and screening Sikh travelers and their articles of faith. Their expertise helped TSA deliver new and improved training to the frontline workforce.

Disability and Medical Conditions Community Partner AwardeeAlzheimer’s Foundation of America

TSA’s partnership with the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) dates back to the agency’s inception. AFA’s consistent support and advocacy to promote TSA programs and initiatives with their communities, as well as share valuable feedback with TSA, has significantly improved the agency’s ability to interact and engage with travelers with dementia.

Internal Partner Awardee – TSA Training and Development Office

Training and Development (T&D) was recognized for their collaboration on training products that support the coalition’s hard work. T&D creates training for TSA’s workforce and helps educate on best practices for traveler interactions. 

Pekoske also announced and introduced TSA’s first-ever Chief Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Accessibility Officer, Vernell Sutherland. The new position was created from the Inclusion Action Committee feedback and supports a key component of TSA’s Strategy, “Commit to Our People” to foster a diverse, inclusive and transparent work environment.

The conference concluded with a lively round of Q&As that touched on important topics for future projects and discussions.

By Kimberlyn Pepe, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs