Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Disabled Cruising 2017 Part 1: Getting to the Ship


It began at 4:00 am at the TSA checkpoint, Logan Airport, Boston. My brother, Andy, and his wife, Karen, zipped through without a problem. Kim did too. A TSA agent shouted, “MALE ASSIST, MALE ASSIST.” I waited a long while for the male assist.

He noticed I had my backpack hanging off my wheelchair. To remove it, I explained, he would need to take off the headrest. Male assist dude couldn’t figure out how.

“My wife just went through security. Go get her, and she’ll help you.”

After a few minutes, Karen, not Kim, arrived and explained that Kim was in the bathroom. Karen couldn’t figure out how to remove the headrest either.

As I sat there, the current of busy travelers flowed around me like I was a boulder in the middle of a stream. Eventually, I spied Kim. She and Karen changed places. Kim removed the headrest, placed the backpack on the conveyor belt, and reinstalled the headrest.


The male assist dude guided me to a spot where he could pat me down and inspect my wheelchair. I soon discovered he was a mere trainee. Two senior personnel directed his every move and criticized his numerous nonconformities. Several times, they made him go back and repeat steps until he got them right. By the end, he was quite flustered, and so was I. When I finally arrived at the gate, it was time for me to board, so my plans for a leisurely breakfast never materialized.


Wheelchair people use the word transfer to describe the process where we move from our wheelchair to something else or from something else to our wheelchair or from something else to something else altogether. Transfer is an appropriate word for the controlled manner I move from my wheelchair to my bed at home, for example.

Transfer, however, was not an apt description of how I moved from seat to seat when we flew to Fort Lauderdale last week. Better words would have been: dragged, stuffed, tossed, yanked, ejected, eighty-sixed, or given the ‘ol heave ho, in no particular order.

“Mitch, how many of these transfers does it take to fly from Boston to Fort Lauderdale?” I’m glad you asked. Let’s count…
  1. from my personal wheelchair to the Boston airport’s aisle chair*
  2. from aisle chair to airplane seat
  3. from airplane seat to Dulles’ aisle chair
  4. from Dulles’ aisle chair to Dulles’ wheelchair
  5. from Dulles’ wheelchair to aisle chair for second flight
  6. from aisle chair to airplane seat, second flight
  7. from airplane seat to aisle chair, Fort Lauderdale airport
  8. from aisle chair to my personal wheelchair, Fort Lauderdale airport
That’s right; it took eight transfers using a slide board and brute strength. I had assigned Andy, Karen, and Kim specific duties during these transfers, and they dispatched said duties with aplomb. Airport personnel helped too, but they hadn’t attended my mandatory training sessions (worth 10 Continuing Education Credits) and received my certificate of completion, suitable for framing, as the others had.

Four Hundred and Forty Pounds

Transfers and TSA pat downs weren’t the only problems. While our 737 sat on the tarmac at Logan Airport on Sunday morning, one of the baggage handlers came down the aisle to ask me a question. “How do you either fold down or remove the back of your power wheelchair? It’s too tall to fit in the luggage door.”

I responded, “I don’t think there is a way. You’ll have to lift the chair and turn it sideways, like moving a sofa through an apartment door.”

“How much does that chair weigh?” He asked.

“Four hundred and forty pounds.”

He rolled his eyes and said, “We’ll figure something out.”

Looking out the airplane window, we watched a group of baggage handlers wrestling with the wheelchair, and this made us a little queasy. After a time, the captain announced, “We’re still loading the final pieces of luggage. It shouldn’t be long.” I appreciated how he didn’t point out that I was the one holding up the entire flight.

After a 20-minute delay, we took off. At Dulles Airport, we exited the airplane without incident, zipped down the terminal and were the first to board our connecting flight. Once again, we looked out the window and saw baggage handlers examining my wheelchair, pushing on the seatback, and scratching their heads.

“Wait a minute!” I said to Kim. “If we re-attach the joystick controller we can recline the seatback. That should solve the problem.”

Kim rummaged through her carry-on and found the controller we had removed from the wheelchair, for safekeeping, after I transferred to the aisle chair in Boston. She swam upstream against the passengers still boarding and approached the flight attendants with this simple, elegant solution.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t go down there,” said one attendant.

“But all I need to do is…”

“No. You absolutely cannot do that,” said the other attendant, looking down his nose at Kim as if speaking to a small child who had asked if she might sit on the pilot’s lap and steer the plane.

How foolish of us.

Then we saw the baggage handlers open a toolbox and begin operating on my wheelchair. Although I couldn’t read their lips, I imagined them saying:


… Scalpel


… Clamp


… Suction

I think I’ve got it. There it is, success…

… You are such a brilliant surgeon

And you are such a lovely nurse. Now wait for me in the doctors’ lounge, and I’ll show you some of my other skills. (Perhaps I’ve been watching too many hospital dramas over the years.)

Somehow, these baggage handlers lowered the seatback and got the chair loaded into the airplane.


When we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, they brought the wheelchair up to the mouth of the plane, and I transferred to it. Sure, the seatback was too low, but we cared only about getting to the ship. Seating adjustments could wait.

Less than an hour afterward, the four of us joined my brother, Tom, and his wife, Diane, who had wisely flown down a day earlier. We lounged on the deck of our stateroom on the Celebrity Silhouette, relieved that the journey we had worried about for months was behind us. Although we experienced some rough patches on the flights down, we made it in time and intact. And, like a mother who endured unbelievable pain and discomfort throughout childbirth, only to say a year later, “That wasn’t so bad. Let’s have another,” we agreed that the trip from Boston to Fort Lauderdale had gone well. Perhaps the rough edges were smoothed over by the chilled bottle of champagne that greeted us in our cabin.

Things were about to get much better.

For part 2, click here.

*An aisle chair is a narrow wheelchair designed to fit down the aisle of an airplane, depicted in the photo at the top of this post. Also note that I had checked my iBot wheelchair at the ticket counter, all the way through to Fort Lauderdale. I like to travel with two wheelchairs.


  1. Whew, what a story! Your rich detail always makes my day, Mitch

  2. How much do they charge to transport your extra chair?