Cody Joplin has the most serious and disabling form of spastic cerebral palsy, and he is unable to speak. On Tuesday morning, the 28-year-old sat aboard a United Airlines plane with his parents, Lee and Linda. Their destination: the far end of the tarmac.

The Joplins arrived at the San Antonio International Airport as one of 75 families participating in the Wings For All program, an airport rehearsal of sorts designed specifically for people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities and their families. Participants arrived at the airport and boarded a plane as a learning moment.

The purpose of the exercise, organized by the Arc of San Antonio, was for families to experience the process of getting through security and boarding an aircraft, and to gain familiarity with the process of flying with someone with special needs. The Arc offers community programs designed to enhance the lives of people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities.

The last time the Joplins took a family vacation was in 2011. As airport security checks have become more stringent, the logistics of getting Cody aboard an airplane posed a more daunting challenge to his parents.

“When you travel with [a] special needs [person], especially someone like Cody who is 100% dependent on you, you don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Linda Joplin said. “I am really interested to see how they will board him onto the airplane.”

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) treated Cody as it would someone who opts out of the full-body scanner machine. Instead, he went through a metal detector and received a full-body pat-down, which is often more time-consuming and difficult for a person with physical limitations.

Cody went through the TSA metal detector while in his wheelchair. His father then helped TSA agent David Gonzalez lift him as the agents inspected the chair thoroughly, wiping down and scanning each wheelchair component. Boarding the plane, his father carried Cody to his seat, where flight attendants worked out how to strap him safely into his seat according to regulations and with comfort in mind.

Gonzalez told the Rivard Report that helping people with disabilities get through airport security is a familiar task. “When we have people in this situation, when people know they will need help going through the security checkpoint, we try to plan in advance,” he said.

Through a program called TSA Cares, travelers with disabilities, medical conditions, and other special circumstances receive additional assistance during the security screening process.

Gonzalez made eye contact and spoke directly with Cody, explaining each step of the security screening process before it took place. He said TSA workers receive training in cultural sensitivity in order to best communicate with travelers like Cody.

Around 191,000 people under the age of 65 in Bexar County are living with a disability – almost 10% of the total population, according to U.S. census data reports from July 2016. Nearly 23% of individuals with disabilities need some sort of specialized assistance or equipment to travel outside the home, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Wings For All is a national program offered by Arc chapters at airports around the country.

“The community needs to understand that by us doing what we do, we are allowing someone [with disabilities] to integrate” into society, said Jennifer Tarr, administrative director of day service programs at the Arc. “Just because you have Down syndrome or cerebral palsy doesn’t mean you can’t contribute and live a normal life.”

The Arc works with more than 1,800 San Antonio families, providing day program services and case management at two locations. Seventy families participated in Tuesday’s Wings For All event, with more than 60 on a waiting list.

The Joplin's walk along Terminal B towards their gate.
The Joplins, along with an Arc volunteer, walk through Terminal B toward the departure gate. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Meredith Cummings attended the event with her 5-year-old son Dexter, who has autism. She signed up for the event last year and was put on the waiting list.

She told the Rivard Report that she would love to take her family to Disneyland and is using this opportunity to gauge how her son would fare on a three-hour flight.

“We have been hesitant to travel, because we aren’t sure how he is going to deal with the experience,” Cummings said. She explained that Dexter is sensitive to loud noise and crowds, and dislikes being in small, enclosed spaces.

Once the participants boarded the airplane, a pilot taxied around the tarmac so the passengers could experience the aircraft in motion. Cummings said that her son was excited and “wanted the plane to go faster,” which she felt was a good sign.

“He did really well,” Cummings said. “It was really promising.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.