One of Australia’s leading disability advocates has called out security at Parliament House for “demeaning” treatment that she found threatening and intimidating.
Christina Ryan has worked at the UN on a number of occasions, flies regularly and is well prepared for the security issues around her large motorised wheelchair.
“I take everything out of my bag that I don’t absolutely need. I dress in a way that makes it easier for me to deal with their requests. I have operated like this for years because as an advocate for my sector, I am often at Parliament,” she told Region Media.
“Perhaps five visits to Parliament in the last decade have been trouble-free, the rest of my experiences have been really depersonalising and unpleasant. But last week was probably the worst experience I have had anywhere.”
“I’d detached the bag I was carrying and put it through the scanner when one of the security guards approached me before I had even gone through the metal detector and started talking at the back of my head.
“I asked him to talk to my face, but next thing I know he is trying to remove the big bag that is permanently attached to my wheelchair and designed with scanners and security in mind.”
She knew she would set off the metal detector and attempted to move to one side so she could be manually scanned, but a barricade blocked her way and her bags and belongings were held in the scanner.
Ryan says she was suddenly surrounded by three security staff, one facing her and two behind her. Asked to remove her outer layers of clothing, she says her chair was jostled by the staff, who spoke over her and at her rather than to her.
By this stage, the screening process had taken more than 10 minutes and Ryan says she was beginning to dissociate to cope with the pressure.
“Then everything stopped so I asked if we were done and could I go. But then the woman security guard said to me ‘I just need to check your belly'”.
Ryan says the request left her gobsmacked, feeling demeaned and “utterly appalled by what was happening”.
Angry and feeling violated, she picked up her outer layers of clothing, held them up to her chin “and flashed my underwear at her”.
It was a statement of anger and defiance, Ryan says, amidst an experience that left her feeling dehumanised.
“I wondered if they ask anyone else if they can feel their belly?”
The experience took days to process before she decided to go public on social media and speak to a handful of trusted media contacts. Ryan says it’s been a cathartic experience and one she felt was necessary. There’s been a barrage of social media and other attention since.
“It’s important for other disabled people to know things like this happen, including to high profile people in the community like me. Going through this kind of treatment can often be very isolating.
“It’s been supportive to have such a strong response, but this is about the bigger understanding that it’s not OK, whoever it happens to. It’s not OK to be treated as an object of suspicion just because you are different.
“I know that you can’t compromise security, but this is about doing it respectfully and treating people as individuals. I’ve been treated more respectfully during an airport full-body search at JFK Airport than I was at Parliament House.”
Ryan says Parliamentary Services have been in touch and the incident is being investigated. She believes the issue is a cultural one among staff but says the level of aggravation is bad enough to make her question whether she can handle going into the building.
“Fundamentally, I am pretty physically vulnerable. There’s not a lot I can do to deal with people being intimidating. I do assert myself but I’ve learned that I don’t argue – it will make it worse. Switching off and enduring it is the only option you have.
“The critical thing is that Parliament is the people’s building. Twenty per cent of us are disabled. We look different, some of us come with bits of equipment and they are just going to have to learn to deal with us. They can’t make us so unwelcome that we cannot do our work,” Ryan says.