Home Posts The Woman Whose Wheelchair Delta Broke Reveals The Harrowing Reality Of Flying While Disabled
The Woman Whose Wheelchair Delta Broke Reveals The Harrowing Reality Of Flying While Disabled

The Woman Whose Wheelchair Delta Broke Reveals The Harrowing Reality Of Flying While Disabled

There's a lot more to the viral video that broke the hearts of millions.

Bri Scalesse, a model and wheelchair user, posted a TikTok video last month that received over 16 million views, depicting her friend Gabrielle deFiebre, a 32-year-old quadriplegic, crying after flying from New York City to Phoenix on May 21 because Delta broke her chair's wheels.

DeFiebre told Stardia via email that airlines typically transfer wheelchair users from their chairs into plane seats, then check their chairs into cargo for the flight.

“My wheelchair is an extension of my body; it is how I move through the world,” deFiebre said, referring to her wheelchair as a “source of freedom.”

@briscalesse When will this end? #fyp #disabilitiyawareness #wheelchair @geeg_def original sound - briscalesse

“I wouldn’t be able to roll around the city, see friends, take the subway, or live my life if I didn’t have it,” she explained.

She explained that her chair is custom-made for her, and that it is useless with the wheels broken.

“They are higher-tech power-assist wheels,” she explained, “with a little motor inside that helps me self-propel. As a quadriplegic with limited hand function on one side and no hand function on the other, I rely on these wheels to get around.”

This post was shared by Gabrielle GG deFiebre (@geeg_d) on Instagram.

After the incident, Delta employees were "kind and understanding," deFiebre said.

“We’re so sorry that her wheelchair was damaged, and we’ve been in touch with her and worked with her directly to make this right, including support to make repairs to her device,” a Delta Airlines representative told Stardia in an emailed statement.

And, yes, Delta — and all airlines — should do "better," because deFiebre's experience is far from unique.

According to The Washington Post, the country's largest airlines have lost or damaged at least 15,425 wheelchairs or scooters since 2018, when airlines were required to begin reporting those numbers to the government.

These figures would be even higher if not for the coronavirus pandemic, which halted air travel for the majority of 2020.

According to John Morris, founder of the accessible travel website Wheelchair Travel, the numbers are even higher than reported.

“In my experience, it approaches 50% of trips,” he says.

DeFiebre even told Stardia that one of her friends who traveled 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 previous trip."

A quick Twitter search reveals a plethora of wheelchair users venting about the nightmare conditions of airline travel.

I've had my wheelchair broken several times and was told "oh well, we're not paying." I've had my wheelchair placed on the luggage carousel in the airport twice. We need to rewrite how the transportation industry handles mobility devices. @SecretaryPete @shortyvoorde @Chasten https://t.co/ZVMi03MDK0 — Nella (@NellaSays) June 9, 2021

— Megan (@MegBelden) February 28, 2010

When will airlines and airport personnel, doctors and insurance providers recognize that a broken or lost wheelchair is more than an inconvenience? It is an emergency that must be treated as such. — Gregory Mansfield (@GHMansfield) November 7, 2018

I'm wheelchair and cane dependent, and I've had this happen to me before; once I was literally stuck in an airport because I couldn't move without my wheelchair. It's like having a better than normal chance of having your legs broken every time you fly. — Michael Robbins (@thepopemichael) June 9, 2021

People think I'm joking when I say I always pack duct tape in my carry-on for when the airlines break something on my chair, but I've only had one trip where I didn't have to use it.https://t.co/ApFi57jYiT — Despina Karras (@DespinaKarras) June 8, 2021

However, damaged equipment is only one of many issues that wheelchair users face when flying.


“I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to fly when you have a disability,” deFiebre told Stardia. One issue she faces is that she can’t go “through the metal detectors” in the TSA line with her chair, so she has to endure “a pat-down from TSA agents, which can be quite an invasive feeling.”

She claims that TSA PreCheck has solved her problem, but there is no excuse for one of her most egregious air travel complaints.

“Because I can't use the restroom on the plane, I usually don't drink or eat anything before I fly,” she explained.

Michele Erwin, the founder and president of All Wheels Up — a nonprofit that advocates for wheelchair users to stay in their chairs during flights, among other accessibility issues regarding air travel — notes that wheelchair users frequently have to buy and bring their own supplies to ensure a safe flight, such as bubble wrap, which can help their chairs stay safe in cargo, and slings, which can help evacuees.

“If you are a seasoned wheelchair traveler, you know you need to plan ahead of time; you cannot simply book your ticket and pack your bag the night before,” she explained via email to Stardia.

According to Erwin, the main issue for disabled travelers is a lack of an emergency evacuation plan.

“There is no safe way to evacuate people with limited mobility from an airplane, including the elderly,” Erwin said, adding that “every wheelchair user I have spoken to is resigned to the fact that in the event of an emergency, they will be left behind.”

One must also remember that if an airplane damages their chair, their trip is effectively over.

“When an airline damages a wheelchair user’s wheelchair, the airlines take away their mobility and independence; vacations are ruined, or they can’t go to work,” Erwin explained.

According to DeFiebre, the process of repairing the chair is extremely time-consuming.

“It has to go through the process of getting an evaluation, a prescription for repairs, insurance approval, ordering parts, and actually setting up the repair,” she explained.

As a result, when she discovered her wheels had broken during her flight, her "immediate response was to be devastated."

This post was shared by Gabrielle GG deFiebre (@geeg_d) on Instagram.

“I assumed I'd have to turn around and return to NYC, where I'd have to wait weeks or months for a repair or replacement,” she explained.


Fortunately, one of deFiebre's wheelchair-using friends in Phoenix found "someone who was willing to lend me her spare set of power-assist wheels."

“We would have been confined to a block or two from our hotel if not for these connections,” deFiebre said.

@briscalesse Update on the @geeg_def story; thank you for your support, empathy, and solidarity. #disabilityawareness original sound - briscalesse

DeFiebre also stated that her wheels have yet to be repaired, but that she expects to do so soon.

“My new wheels should be delivered to me on Thursday.”

This post was shared by Gabrielle GG deFiebre (@geeg_d) on Instagram.

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