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Achieve Tahoe has an adaptive ski school for the disabled in Alpine Meadows. Photo courtesy Achieve Tahoe via Flickr
ColumnsHit the Road

Hit the Road: Thanks to those who go extra mile for challenged travelers

It’s easy to get annoyed with travelers who look like they should have stayed home. Airline travel has come almost to a standstill now, but in normal times (pre-pandemic and hopefully at some point in the not-too-distant future), flights include more and more people for whom traveling is a huge challenge.

And it falls to the flight crew to help get these people to their destinations in relative comfort and safety.

Like most, I haven’t been anywhere lately, but I have memories of some intrepid travelers, like my brother, Larry. He died 12 years ago, and had several serious illnesses during his last seven years, including a broken neck.

He was not a candidate for surgery, so doctors strapped him into a “halo” brace that stabilized his neck for the many months that it took for his cervical vertebrae to heal. This cumbersome, 60-pound device made him look like a Martian robot, and it was amazing to watch him maneuver.

Larry was determined to fly from his home in Sacramento to visit family in the Phoenix metro area and take his then-11-year-old daughter with him. I can only wonder what the cabin crew thought when they saw him coming, but between his chutzpah, the crew’s help and the combined efforts of my other siblings, my brother and niece made it to their destination.

A few years earlier, my daughter and I became part of a group of challenged travelers when we accompanied 20 disabled adults — students from a Palomar College program — on a flight from San Diego to Reno. Our final destination was a Lake Tahoe-area “adaptive” ski school (now called Achieve Tahoe) for the disabled at Alpine Meadows.

The school’s instructors had devised all sorts of simple machines and complicated contraptions that made it possible for almost anyone to enjoy shushing down the slopes, regardless of disability.

The participants, with both intellectual and physical disabilities, ranged in age from 19 to 60. They came with an enormous amount of luggage, braces, canes, crutches, walkers, wheelchairs and titanium plates in their skulls — enough shiny stuff to send the metal detectors into seizures.

But thanks to the teamwork of their families and five chaperones, some generous folks who donated the money for their airfares, and a well-trained airline crew and TSA employees, we all made it on and off the plane without incident.

Getting everyone into vans for the ride from the Reno airport to the large, multi-level home that we shared for five days was another thing. Many of the students had a penchant for wandering, which made keeping the group together for an hour an exercise in near futility.

I was surprised our enormous mountain cabin had no accommodations for disability. I later learned this was done on purpose. One of the teachers explained that it forced the students to adapt and problem-solve.

Sometimes traveling under challenging circumstances is not in the plan.

Many years ago, my mother-in-law, Helen, fell very ill while traveling in China. She had been coping with cancer, but when she and my father-in-law, Paul, left Ohio, she was doing well. Helen was determined to fit in all she could in what was left of her life.

Helen and Paul left on a high note for their cruise and things went well for about half the trip. Then Helen suddenly relapsed and went into a coma. They had to get home. I don’t know how my father-in-law did it, but he cared for his wife during the entire, long flight from halfway around the world.

He said the flight attendants had been very helpful and made what could have been a nightmare of a trip at least bearable. Some credit also goes to all those workers who transport mobility-challenged passengers around the airport terminal.

My in-laws made it home and went directly to the hospital where Helen died the next day in the company of her husband and two sons.

So, the next time you see someone who you think has no business getting on an airplane, give them credit for having the courage to travel despite how difficult it might be. And be thankful for the airline attendants and others who are willing to go the extra mile to make travel possible for many who otherwise couldn’t go.