Gabrielle deFiebre and Bri Scalesse boarded a Delta Air Lines flight to Phoenix from New York on May 21 in anticipation of a relaxed girls trip.
They both placed instructions and notes for the airport staff who would be transporting their wheelchairs. Scalesse said for any wheelchair user, this is the worst part of traveling – placing “an extension of your body” into a stranger’s hands.
While getting off and on the plane, deFiebre sits in a small airport-provided chair, known as an aisle chair. Once she was placed off the aisle chair and into her own wheelchair, she immediately felt a sinking sensation in her stomach. The chair’s backrest was folded down and the wheel was “completely destroyed;” she said the wheel was bent in a way that it couldn’t propel forward.
DeFiebre was devastated. She burst into tears and explained to the Delta crew that her wheelchair is not just a chair but her life.
“It was scary for me. It is kind of mind-blowing to me that nondisabled people just get to get off a plane and go on their vacation and they don’t have to have that 20-minute anxiety of, what is my wheelchair, what are my basically legs going to look like when I get off this plane?” deFiebre, 32 from New York, told USA TODAY. “This is my life, my legs I told them.”
As Scalesse watched her friend struggle with what to do next, she decided to record the moment. She said she wanted to bring awareness to a “powerful, heartbreaking” moment. Scalesse uploaded a TikTok video of deFiebre in tears as she talks with the Delta crew, and it’s been watched over 14 million times. In the video, deFiebre points to her chair and says “but it’s made for me.” As the staff prepare to place her into an airport wheelchair, she starts to cry.
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More than just a wheelchair
After speaking with multiple Delta Air Lines workers, deFiebre said she was told no one would be able to fix or replace her wheels for four days. But that was the day they returned to New York, which meant deFiebre would’ve been stuck in a hotel for her entire trip.
Fortunately, deFiebre and Scalesse had friends in the city who lent her manual wheels for her wheelchair. But for deFiebre, a quadriplegic, manual wheels are a strain on her arms. DeFiebre owns a manual wheelchair but with powered wheels to propel her forward without the use of her arms. Quadriplegia is paralysis that results in the partial or total loss of use of all four limbs and torso.
“Often times people assume quadriplegia means that you can’t move your arms at all but it just means impairment in all four limbs, which I have. I have very limited hand function and impairment in my arms,” deFiebre said.
Since the incident, it took Delta Air Lines about a week to ship new powered wheels to deFiebre. Although only one wheel was damaged, wheels come in pairs. So, Delta is sending two wheels. The new wheels will be shipped free of cost. Until then, deFiebre is still using loaner wheels she purchased from a local wheelchair vendor.
In a statement to USA TODAY, Delta Air Lines admitted they had fallen short for their customers with disabilities.
“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,” Morgan Durrant, a spokesperson for Delta Air Lines told USA TODAY in an email.
From January to March 2021, Delta Air Lines handled 15,547 wheelchairs and scooters and reportedly mishandled 103 of those, according to the Air Travel Consumer report.
For comparison in the same timeframe, American Airlines handled 11,932 and reportedly mishandled 187 of them. While Southwest Airlines handled 10,527 and mishandled 133 of them. The report included the top 10 largest airlines and Delta has one of the lowest percentages of mishandled wheelchairs.
Raising awareness about traveling with disabilities
After reflecting on the incident, deFiebre and Scalesse said they will continue to bring awareness on the difficult of travel for people with disabilities. DeFiebre doesn’t want the conversation on airlines damaging wheelchairs to die once the video isn’t viral anymore; she plans to partner with local organizations to spread awareness.
“I don’t want this to happen to any more people, I felt mortified and so sad to see my wheel damaged. None of the able bodied body staff understood that fully, how could they?” deFiebre said. “So now even when people stop watching that video, I want them to hear about how this is happening to wheelchair users.”
Founder and president of All Wheels Up, Michele Erwin said for Delta that’s still 103 too many wheelchairs mishandled or damaged. The organization, created 10 years ago, focuses on creating and advocating for a designated wheelchair area on airplanes. Currently, wheelchairs are stored either inside the planes wheelchair closet or in the plane cargo hold.
Wheelchair users are placed into an aisle seat and escorted inside where they will sit on a regular chair on the plane, according to Wheel Chair Travel. Erwin said if airplanes were equipped with a designated spot for a person’s wheelchair, it would eliminate some of the anxiety and struggle people with disabilities face on planes.
Erwin’s son is paralyzed. She’s witnessed the difficulty and “embarrassment” that comes with traveling as a disabled person.
“Like the woman you saw in the video, it can be traumatizing and scary. When I started my organization, I just kept thinking, how is my son going to travel one day fully paralyzed?” Erwin told USA TODAY.
Once Scalesse’s TikTok video went viral, she and deFiebre realized how often wheelchairs were damaged at airports. Scalesse said she had dozens of wheelchair users share similar experiences. People reached out about airports damaging their own wheelchairs or not taking wheelchair users needs “seriously and empathetically.”
After deFiebre’s experience with Delta Air Lines, both women agree with Erwin’s vision for a designated wheelchair spot on airplanes. This would eliminate the need for aisle wheelchairs and leaving behind people’s own chairs.
“Flying back to New York was scary,” Scalesse said. “We didn’t want to leave our chairs in someone else’s hands again.”
‘Part of who I am’
She also realized people don’t always understand the importance of a wheelchair. Scalesse’s wheelchair gives her freedom, and a damaged wheelchair is akin to a broken body part. When Delta damaged deFiebre’s wheelchair, her freedom vanished, Scalesse said.
“I have a deeper personal connection to my chair than most things. She’s not an object to me; I named her Aphrodite. My boyfriend and my friends, everyone who’s not disabled in my life, knows how important this chair is to me and they literally call her by her name because that’s how important she is to me. She is a part of who I am,” Scalesse said.
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Making the most of the trip
Despite the unfortunate start to their trip, deFiebre and Scalesse enjoyed five days exploring Phoenix with friends. Scalesse said the group of women with disabilities “rolled around the city” and enjoyed every activity able-bodied people enjoy.
“It was our first trip without an able-bodied person with us. It was just a bunch of girls in wheelchairs and we had the best time,” Scalesse said.
DeFiebre emphasized that although the airport incident reminded her of the obstacles against people with disabilities, the rest of the trip reminded her of “the good.” She added it’s easy for able-bodied people to see the limitations to disabilities, but she hopes her story can show all that can be accomplished in a wheelchair.
“Pain and struggle is what you saw in that video, but it’s not our entire lives. We experience hardships because the world wasn’t built for us, but we make the best out of it. We find joy,” deFiebre said.
Follow Gabriela Miranda on Twitter: @itsgabbymiranda