Kylah Simmons says a customs agent accused her of lying about her disability

By Char Adams
Updated January 29, 2016 04:20 PM
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Credit: Kylah Simmons

A Washington, D.C., woman is seeking an apology from airport officials in Atlanta after she was detained for about an hour because of her speech impediment, she says.

Kylah Simmons, 20, says she was flying from Costa Rica back home to Washington on Jan. 21, when a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport asked her what country she was traveling from.

“Costa Rica has always been a difficult word for me to say and when he asked me what country, I had a block,” she tells PEOPLE. “He just stared at me and told me to step to the side.”

Simmons has a stutter – a communication disorder involving uncontrollable disruptions or “disfluencies” in a person’s speech, according to the National Stuttering Association. This, she says, led to about an hour of questioning by a second agent.

“One of the first questions he asked is if there was something wrong with me,” Simmons tells PEOPLE, adding that she had trouble telling him where she was flying from. “I explained that I had a speech impediment and that I stuttered and then throughout our conversation he continued to questioned me [about my stutter].”

Simmons, a Kalamazoo, Michigan, college student, says the agent asked her several questions about her time in Costa Rica, and accused her of lying about her speech impediment when she spoke fluently.

“I felt really frustrated. I felt like I had no control,” she says. “I felt like me having a disability was seen as a threat.”

She says none of the agents told her why she was initially stopped.

A spokesperson with the USCBP tells PEOPLE that the agency “is investigating an allegation of misconduct filed against CBP by a United States citizen who recently arrived from overseas through the Port of Atlanta.”

“CBP takes very seriously any and all allegations of unprofessional conduct by our employees, and we thoroughly investigate all traveler complaints,” the statement continues.

The entire ordeal lasted for about an hour, causing Simmons to miss her connecting flight, she says. She immediately went to speak with a supervisor at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office who gave her a “verbal apology.”

“I would really appreciate the staff member involved to give me an apology,” she says, noting that she later filed a complaint with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “I’m not asking for him to get fired. I’m not asking for any compensation.”

She says she has not received a response from airport officials. Simmons says she reached out to stutter-oriented organizations and even started the hashtag #DDDetainedinatlanta.

Since the ordeal, Simmons has teamed up with The Stuttering Foundation to create a pocket-size “I Stutter” card with which stutterers could use to explain, non-verbally, that they have trouble speaking.

“I don’t know why it’s taken us so long to do this because over the years we’ve had requests from people that say, ‘If we were stopped by the police for speeding, if we’re in that security line – which is just horror at the airport – it would really be nice to have something like this,’ ” Jane Fraser, the foundation’s president, tells PEOPLE.

The cards are available to download for free on the foundation’s website.