A viral TikTok video of a woman sobbing in an airport because Delta Air Lines employees destroyed the wheels on her personal wheelchair is waking people up to the realities of navigating air travel as a disabled person. The video was posted by Bri Scalesse, a model, disability advocate, fellow wheelchair user, and best friend to Gabrielle deFiebre, who was trying to go on vacation with her friends after over a year of isolation when she found out her means of getting around had been broken beyond use by the airline.

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“Today my heart broke watching my best friend sob because Delta broke her wheelchair,” the text overlay reads.

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The video appears to show a Delta or airport employee trying to console deFiebre, the Director of Research and Programs at Siegel Rare Neuroimmune Association, by saying they can get her another wheelchair—but what he doesn’t seem to understand is that not all wheelchairs are made equal. Those who rely on them often spend thousands of dollars, if not tens of thousands, on a chair that works well with their particular needs and allows them to successfully navigate their homes.

Within the community of wheelchair users, flying is a massive source of stress due to the frequency of this exact kind of experience. Many have their own stories of airline employees mishandling and breaking these devices, likely due to a lack of training. Until the company can get its act together to pay for replacement parts, or in some cases replacement of the entire chair, it’s kind of like if Delta Air Lines broke your legs.

“She kept repeating ‘this is my life,'” the video text explains. “‘This is the only way I can live my life.'”

“It’s made for me,” deFiebre says.

“People in wheelchairs live in constant fear of airlines breaking our wheelchairs because it happens so often,” writes Scalesse. “I am SO tired of watching my community suffer.”


Update on @geeg_def story. Thank you for all your support, empathy, and solidarity. #disabilitiyawareness

♬ original sound – briscalesse
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Thankfully, the women’s trip wasn’t completely ruined. Someone in the wheelchair user community in the area of Phoenix had an extra set of the kind of wheels deFiebre needed and was willing to let her borrow them for the duration of their vacation. Delta will need to act fast to get those wheels replaced, however, as deFiebre will need to give the extras back before heading home.

“But again, this shouldn’t happen to anyone in our community ever,” said deFiebre in a follow-up video. “It’s unacceptable.”

The TikTok video went mega viral, with over 16.2 million views on the one platform alone, and has brought much-needed public attention to a chronic and devastating problem with airlines breaking wheelchairs. Thanks to Scalesse and deFiebre putting Delta on blast, the Washington Post published a report showing that since airlines have been required to keep a tally of such things (thanks again to disability advocates) in 2018, the biggest companies have lost or damaged at least 15,425 wheelchairs or mobility scooters.

One wheelchair user and founder of Wheelchair Travel, a website dedicated to helping disabled individuals navigate air travel, believes that the real number of these incidents is likely much higher, saying that his own chair gets damaged about half the time when he flies.

“Just in my own experience, it approaches 50 percent of trips,” John Morris said in an interview that was delayed because an airline damaged his wheelchair.

Though the company that damages or destroys a wheelchair is required to replace it at their own expense, this can take weeks from the moment a claim is filed by the user.

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*First Published: June 15, 2021, 11:28 am