There’s much more to a viral video that left millions of people heartbroken.
Last month, model and wheelchair user Bri Scalesse posted a TikTok that received over 16 million views. The video showed her friend Gabrielle deFiebre, a 32-year-old quadriplegic, crying after she flew from New York City to Phoenix on May 21 because Delta broke the wheels of her chair.
DeFiebre told HuffPost via email that airlines typically transfer a wheelchair user from their chairs into a plane seat, and then check their chairs into cargo for the flight.
“My wheelchair is an extension of my body. It is the way I move through the world,” deFiebre said, calling her chair “a source of freedom.”
“Without it, I would be stuck in bed,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to roll around the city, see friends, take the subway or live my life.”
She explained that her chair is built to her specific measurements, and with the wheels broken, it is useless.
“They are higher-tech power-assist wheels,” she explained. “They have a little motor in them that helps me self-propel. As a quadriplegic with limited hand function on one side and no hand function on the other side, I require these wheels to get around.”
Delta staff was “kind and understanding” after the incident, deFiebre said.
“We’re so sorry that her wheelchair was damaged and have been in touch with her and worked with her directly to make this right, including support to make repairs to her device,” a representative from Delta Airlines told HuffPost in an emailed statement. “We know our customers with disabilities rely on Delta for their travel needs, and we fell short here. We’re conducting a full investigation of what happened, because we must be better.”
And indeed Delta — and all airlines — should do “better,” because deFiebre’s story is by no means an isolated experience.
The country’s largest airlines have lost or damaged at least 15,425 wheelchairs or scooters — roughly 29 a day — since 2018, which is the year airlines were required to start reporting those numbers to the government, The Washington Post reported.
The outlet notes that these numbers would be even higher if it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic that put a halt on airline travel for most of 2020.
John Morris, founder of the accessible travel site Wheelchair Travel, told the Post that he thinks the numbers are even higher than what’s been reported.
“Just in my own experience, it approaches 50% of trips,” he said.
DeFiebre even noted to HuffPost that one of her friends who was traveling with her to Phoenix last month was flying “on a voucher that she was given after Delta cracked the frame of her wheelchair on a prior trip.”
A simple search on Twitter yields plenty of wheelchair users airing their grievances about the nightmarish conditions of airline travel.
Yet damaged equipment is only a fraction of the problems wheelchair users face when they fly.
“I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to fly when you have a disability,” deFiebre told HuffPost. One problem deFiebre faces is that because she can’t go “through the metal detectors” in the TSA line with her chair, she has to endure “a pat-down from TSA agents, which can be quite an invasive feeling.”
She said TSA PreCheck has resolved this issue for her, but there’s no excuse for one of her more egregious gripes about air travel.
“I usually have to not drink or eat anything before I fly because I can’t access the bathroom on the airplane,” she said.
Michele Erwin, the founder and president of All Wheels Up — a nonprofit that advocates for wheelchair users to stay in their chairs during a flight, among other accessibility issues regarding air travel — notes that wheelchair users often have to buy and bring their own supplies to ensure a safe flight. Bubble Wrap, for example, can help their chairs stay safe in cargo and slings could help evacuate them during an emergency.
“If you are an experienced wheelchair traveler, you know you need to have extensive planning. You cannot just book your ticket and pack your bag the night before,” she told HuffPost via email.
Erwin said a lack of an evacuation plan during emergencies is the major issue facing disabled travelers.
“There is no safe way to evacuate people with reduced mobility from the airplane and that includes the elderly,” Erwin said. “Every wheelchair user I have spoken to is resigned to the fact that in the case of an emergency situation they will be left behind.”
One also has to take into consideration that once an airplane damages their chair, their trip is essentially over.
“When a wheelchair user has their wheelchair damaged, the airlines have taken away their mobility and independence. Wheelchair users’ vacations are ruined or they can not go to work,” Erwin said.
DeFiebre said that getting the chair repaired is an extremely long process.
“It has to go through the process of getting an evaluation, a prescription for repairs, then getting insurance approval, then ordering parts, then actually setting up the repair,“ she explained.
So when she discovered her wheels had been broken during her flight, her “immediate response was to be devastated.”
“I figured I’d have to turn back around and go back to NYC and wait weeks or months for a repair or replacement,” she said.
Fortunately, one of deFiebre’s friends in Phoenix, who is also a wheelchair user, found “someone who was willing to loan me her spare set of power-assist wheels.”
“Without these connections ... we would have been confined to a block or two from our hotel,” deFiebre said.
DeFiebre also said she hasn’t gotten her wheels fixed yet — but she should be getting them soon.
“I should be getting my new wheels delivered on Thursday.”