Flying to Italy in my wheelchair


Tuscany from the Shuttle

One summer I was traveling to Italy by myself to play in a tennis tournament and didn’t know a word of Italian. But I figured as long as I knew how to say “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “Do you speak English?” I’d be okay.

My plan was to fly from Chicago to Rome and transfer to Florence. Since I was unsure about traveling in a non-English speaking country for the first time I made sure my layover was at least three hours. In hindsight, this was the best planning I made on that trip.

You see, when I arrived in Rome, I was taken off the plane and brought to my electric wheelchair in the International terminal. The two Italians spoke English, and said they were taking me to the new assistance area for people who needed special help. As they said this, I remembered reading something online about a new service at the Italian airports to provide assistance to disabled passengers. So I thought I would be fine.

When I arrived at the assistance lounge, I am pretty sure the first words out of the director’s mouth were the Italian equivalent of “Mamma Mia!” which in hindsight would have been “Mamma Mia” so it was probably something even better. They all took one look at me and my chair and were wondering out loud something in Italian. The looks on their faces said that they probably had never helped anyone in an electric chair before.

“How much it weigh?” asked the man behind the desk.

I immediately had to convert pounds to kilograms in my head and said, “Ninety kilograms.”

“Ninety? No, no, no, really?”

“Yes” I said as he began inspecting the chair.

Now imagine the discussion that proceeded. I saw lots of pointing to the chair and arms acting out a lifting motion. One person jumped on the phone, another ran out with a handheld radio looking for someone named Francisco or Antonio or something ending in a vowel.

One nice younger girl tried to tell me in English that it was going to be okay and just wait. I don’t know if that did the trick, but for whatever reason, I was not stressed at all about making my connection. At this point I had two-and-a-half hours, and the staff seemed to know what they needed to do.

An hour passed, but they definitely hadn’t forgotten about me. Every now and then someone would come in and inspect my chair and try to push it even though it was locked in place because I had it turned off. One tried to lift it a little, but let out a loud grunt and sigh as he walked away without being able to make it budge. I just chuckled.

Finally someone came and said, “Come on, we go to the gate” and I followed him through security and downstairs where they queue people to take buses out to the plane. Within a few minutes, a special van was backed-up next to the curb and a ramp as lowered. I got on the van and they took me out to another truck. I got in the back of this truck, which was more like a delivery truck and they drove me out to the plane. Once at the plane, 2 guys got in the back of the truck with me and suddenly we were being lifted up to the plane door. At the door, they deployed this tiny ramp and picked me up off my chair, put me in a narrow wheelchair. The tiny chair rolled over the ramp and the guys put me in my seat.

I heard the truck lower and leave, and from me seat saw it coming around the other side of the plane where they raised it up again and I assume put my chair into the cargo hold.

Transfer complete. And I didn’t have to tell them anything. After all, it’s not rocket science – person and wheelchair both need to get on the plane. Figure out the rest later.

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