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Wheelchair flyers get hands-on training

An intensive program is bringing Shepherd Center wheelchair patients and Delta Air Lines together preparing them to fly home.

ATLANTA — The summer travel season is in full swing and that means big crowds and long lines at the world's busiest airport.

But if you are a patient just finishing intensive treatment at Atlanta's Shepherd Center and you are confined to a wheelchair, the airport experience can be daunting.

But there is a unique program that has been specifically designed to ease the anxiety for wheelchair-bound air travelers.

It's an intensive program that gets little - if any - publicity. But for more than 30 years, the Shepherd Center and Delta Air Lines have teamed up to help wheelchair patients get on flights.  Many are traveling for the first time since suffering either a brain or spinal injury.

Every step of the experience is designed to build confidence and self-reliance. 

It starts with Shepherd patients in wheelchairs being assisted into narrower wheelchairs that can go along the aircraft aisles.  

Shepherd Therapy Manager Kelly Edens said that self-reliance and independence are the keys to a wheelchair patient's successful travel.

“I am very big on making this opportunity realistic.  When you go home Shepherd is not going home with you. You are going to be doing things on your own. Everything you do I want you to do it for yourself," Edens said.

Coordinating the training for Delta are veterans Donna Tannett and Dinah Robinson.

“The purpose of this tour is to try and alleviate any anxiety that they have about traveling for the first time as a wheelchair user,” Tannett said.

"We want to give them their dignity and respect when they travel," she said. "It can be very scary the first time.  We want to let them get onboard before everybody else, not having a line of people watching them.”

To allow for more maneuverability and legroom, Delta said it will upgrade the Shepherd patients to economy comfort at no extra charge.

And the airline goes one step further.

“If need be, we will meet them at the curb and bring them into the airport, help them with luggage, everything they need is being done," Robinson said. "Then, we will bring them to the gate to meet the gate agents, so they will know the process.”

For Shepherd patients like Chance Morris, about to fly home to Tulsa, the experience eased lots of anxiety.

“I think it was like getting into the seat on the plane. Not sure how that was going to go,” Morris said.

Is he OK now to fly home?

“Not nervous at all," he said. "It was a really good learning experience."

And if past experience holds the key, Delta said that after the training sessions, wheelchair patients have far more confidence as they negotiate the airport and get on and off the airplanes.

In the more than 3 decades the program has been available, more than 2,000 Shepherd patients have taken part.