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The regular occurrence of airlines damaging wheelchairs is much more than just a nuisance

Wheelchair prepare for disability passenger at Airport Airline Check in counter

It’s time that airlines look at damaged and broken wheelchairs as more than just an inconvenience, say travelers with disabilities.

Last month, Bri Scalesse posted a video on TikTok showing her friend Gabrielle deFiebre, a 32-year-old quadriplegic, crying because Delta broke the wheels of her chair during a flight in May. The video received over 16 million views.

deFiebre told HuffPost that airlines typically transfer passengers who use wheelchairs into a plane seat and then check their wheelchairs into cargo for the flight.

“My wheelchair is an extension of my body. It is the way I move through the world,” deFiebre said, describing her chair as “a source of freedom” for her.

“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.”

Her chair is customized, built to her specific measurements, and with the wheels broken, it is useless.

“They are higher-tech power-assist wheels,” deFiebre 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.”

In a written statement, a Delta Airlines representative 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.
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.”

According to the Washington Post, the USA’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.

John Morris, founder of the accessible travel site Wheelchair Travel, believes the numbers are higher than what’s been reported.

“Just in my own experience, it approaches 50% of trips,” he said.

A simple search on Twitter reveals numerous complaints by wheelchair users about their horrendous experiences of airline travel.

“I’ve had my wheelchair broken several times & was told “oh well, we aren’t paying. I twice had my wheelchair put on the luggage carousel in the airport. We need to rewrite how the transportation industry handles mobility devices,” wrote a Twitter user.

Another posted, “When will airlines and airport personnel, doctors and insurance providers realize that a broken or lost wheelchair is not an inconvenience?
It is an emergency and should be treated as such.”

“I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to fly when you have a disability,” deFiebre exclaimed. Not being able to 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.”

TSA PreCheck has resolved this problem for deFiebre.

Another issue deFiebre struggles with is airplane bathrooms, saying, “I usually have to not drink or eat anything before I fly because I can’t access the bathroom on the airplane.”

Michele Erwin, 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, noted that wheelchair users often buy and bring their own supplies to ensure no damage to their chairs. Bubble Wrap, for example, can help their chairs stay safe in cargo and slings could help evacuate them during an emergency.

The lack of an evacuation plan during emergencies is the major issue facing travelers with mobility disabilities.

“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 must consider that once an airline damages their wheelchair, 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.

And getting the chair repaired is a 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,” deFiebre explained.

Fortunately for deFiebre, her trip wasn’t ruined as a friend in Phoenix, who also uses a wheelchair, found “someone who was willing to loan me her spare set of power-assist wheels.”

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