Ironically, I'm glad US Airways removed motivational speaker Johnnie Tuitel from his seat on a Sept. 23 flight because he was "too disabled to fly." If the airlines hadn't, most of us may never have heard of him or his inspirational message of "handicapitalism."
Here's the short version of what happened: Mr. Tuitel (sounds like "title") was scheduled to fly from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Kansas City for a speech. Because of cerebral palsy, he's wheelchair bound (and always has been), so, as usual when he flies, an airline employee helped him into his seat using a specially designed chair that fits into the aisle.
Once seated and belted and ready for the flight, Mr. Tuitel was told he had to get off the plane because he didn't have a travel companion and his disability rendered him unable to help himself in the event of an emergency. US Airways' policy requires passengers with disabilities such as his to be accompanied by someone who can assist them.
Left with no choice in the matter, Mr. Tuitel disembarked from the plane. Two days later, he flew to Kansas City on Delta Air Lines without incident, though reports say he missed his speaking gig.
So many things wrong are with this story, it's hard to know where to begin. Suffice to say US Airways' policy on disabled passengers, no doubt a response to intrusive federal regulations, must appear in the "litigation avoidance" section of its corporate handbook. It ought to be filed under "faulty assumptions" instead.
Suppose there is an on-board emergency (read: plane crash). Theoretically, a whole lot of passengers could be rendered "too disabled" to help themselves or others. In all honestly, being the fearful flier that I am, I'm not sure I'd be all that able in such a situation to do more than fumble with my rosary and whip off a quick act of contrition.
On the other hand, if it's an emergency landing, it's hard to imagine that Mr. Tuitel's fellow passengers wouldn't assist him to get off the plane. People are like that.
Being the reluctant flier that I am, and having visited Mr. Tuitel's website and watched his videos (http://www.johnnietuitel.com), I would sit next to him on any flight. Most emergencies require strength of character, courage, tenacity and a sense of humor. It's clear US Airways kicked off the most able of its passengers that day.
Mr. Tuitel's saga with US Airways continues, but not in the way you'd guess. What you'd expect next would be a lawsuit for lost wages and emotional distress. (Unless you were the young woman escorted off a Southwest Airlines flight in 2007 for your "lewd" fashion sense. In that case, what you'd next expect next would be a Playboy pictorial, and you'd have been right. But I digress.)
Instead of trotting out a plaintiff's attorney and a long list of the successful flights he has enjoyed while racking up an estimated half-million worldwide air miles in pursuit of his livelihood, Mr. Tuitel has agreed to work with the folks at US Airways to revisit their policy on passengers with disabilities.
He's not filing a discrimination suit. He's not even angry.
Instead, he's proving that his philosophy of "handicapitalism" — a word he coined more than 10 years ago — is the positive solution to an unfortunate reality.
Mr. Tuitel speaks and writes a message of sheer ability. He defines handicapitalism as the motto that inspires him to participate in a barrier-free world, earn and spend his own money, overcome the obstacles he faces while asking for help when he needs it, and give back to the community he loves.
Mr. Tuitel refuses to be a victim of US Airways, cerebral palsy or life's circumstances. His message of empowerment is just what America needs in these frustrating times.
So thanks, US Airways, for kicking Johnnie Tuitel off that plane and into my newsfeed. He made my day.
Copyright 2010 Marybeth Hicks
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