Model Bri Scalesse was on her way back home to New York City from a wedding when she said her wheelchair was damaged on a Delta flight from Minneapolis. The 26-year-old, who suffered a spinal cord injury from a car accident when she was 6 years old, said that losing her wheelchair has brought her active life to a screeching halt.
Scalesse posted about her ordeal on TikTok, drawing support and attention from the disability community and beyond.
"@delta today I’m losing my independence only 6 weeks after my best friend lost hers. How. How. How," she captioned the video of her speaking directly to the camera in disbelief of the situation.
"Today my freedom, my independence was taken away," she said. "And I don't know how I'm going to live my life."
The video has since gotten nearly half a million likes.
“Returning home from Minneapolis, my partner carried me off the plane to my wheelchair,” Scalesse told TODAY. “I immediately noticed something was wrong. One of the front caster wheels was not touching the ground like all the other wheels and when I went to roll it, it wasn’t touching the ground or rolling.”
Scalesse realized that the back wheel was squished against the break, making it difficult to roll. She asked a flight attendant if she could see a manager.
“A Delta employee came to meet us on the jet bridge, saw the problem and said if we could get down to the baggage service area his manager could meet us there and discuss how to go about fixing the problem or replacing my chair.”
Scalesse said she was able to get to the baggage claim area, but could feel that the wheelchair was definitely broken, with the front wheel not touching the ground.
“When I reached baggage services I showed the manager my unmoving wheel. The manager told me he could give me the number for Scootaround, the wheelchair rental company Delta works with when wheelchairs are broken during flights.”
Since it was July Fourth, Scalesse was concerned about reaching someone. When a Delta employee put her on the phone with Scootaround, she said she was told that due to the specific dimensions of her wheelchair, it would be difficult for them to help her.
“I explained that I wouldn’t know what to do with a wheelchair that didn’t meet those needs as my job as a model, my career and income, and living in New York City heavily involves my chair being very lightweight and fit to my body,” she said. “The Scootaround representative then told me a custom chair like mine would take a long time to replace and having a rental would be the best option.”
Scalesse broke down in tears, well aware from past experience that wheelchairs can take months to arrive.
“The Delta manager apologized many times and compensated our cab ride exiting the airport,” she said. Scalesse returned home and learned that after the holiday weekend, her wheelchair would be assessed and if replacement was required, Delta would cover the costs of the replacement and a temporary rental.
And although her wheels will be fixed or replaced, Scalesse said she still feels the whole situation was wrong to begin with.
“I’ve spoken with the head manager of Delta at Newark airport and shared my feelings that going to baggage services for something that is equivalent to my legs and essentially a part of my body felt wrong,” she said. “My wheelchair is my freedom. It is so difficult for me to understand why wheelchairs are stored with baggage ... There needs to be a solution that treats wheelchairs as an extension of our bodies.”
Scalesse said that sadly, this was not the first time she’d heard of a wheelchair being broken in the disability community.
“What felt so surreal about this situation is that I was with my best friend GG less than two months ago as we got off a plane to the wheel of her wheelchair completely distorted, broken and unusable,” she said.
“We were so lucky that our community, the disability community, showed an outpouring of support and someone with a spare set of the exact same wheels lent GG her wheels,” she said.
"We consider a wheelchair as an extension of a person and understand that any mishandling of this mobility device directly impacts their daily living," a Delta spokesperson told TODAY. "We are affirmatively working with the customer to understand what occurred. We are proactively working with our advisory board on disability and our cross divisional operations teams to continuously improve the travel experience for our customers with disabilities."
Scalesse has received an outpouring of support on social media with many people offering her wheelchairs. “Even though I’ve seen many posts on social media about chairs being broken by airlines and I watched it happen to my best friend, I was shocked to see my chair broken,” she said. “I can’t comprehend how this can keep happening with no changes.”
Scalesse hopes that her situation will shed light on the fact that people with disabilities live full, incredible lives and that they want to be treated fairly — which includes proper treatment of the devices they use to get around.
“We want to travel, to see the world, to go to weddings, to visit family and friends,” she said. “We have jobs, relationships, hobbies. Our wheelchairs are our freedom. I am not bound to my wheelchair, my wheelchair is my partner in movement. I named my wheelchair Aphrodite after the goddess of love to symbolize how important she is to me and how far I’ve come from being ashamed of being disabled to being an extremely proud disabled woman.”