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After Her Wheelchair Was Left Behind, Woman Describes How Airlines Can Do Better

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Kristen Parisi is a writer, and she uses a wheelchair. Yesterday, she boarded a plane from New York City to Syracuse, N.Y., for a friend's bridal shower. When she landed, her custom wheelchair was not there. The airline had left it behind. She did not get it back for more than 10 hours, which meant, as she wrote on Twitter, that she was essentially legless during that time, that a piece of her was missing and that she'd suddenly lost her independence.

Kristen Parisi, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KRISTEN PARISI: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Just for a bit of context here, the U.S. Department of Transportation says about two dozen wheelchairs or accessibility scooters are mishandled every day by airlines. So this is a problem that a lot of people have experienced. Tell us about your story and what happened.

PARISI: In my particular case, I was traveling back to upstate New York, landed, and not only was my wheelchair not there, but they weren't sure where it was, which was terrifying for me. I have been in a wheelchair for almost 29 years, and I've never been apart from my wheelchair for more than the length of a flight.

SHAPIRO: As you wrote, the big gap seemed to be in the airline's treatment of your wheelchair as a piece of luggage and your use of your wheelchair as an extension of your body.

PARISI: Yeah. The airline had to fly it up to Rochester and then drive it out to Utica, which is a 2 1/2-hour drive. They told me that it would be a priority, but they dropped off several other pieces of mishandled luggage before dropping off my chair. It really is an extension of me. It acts as my legs. It allows me to be the independent person that I am. And so for me, not having that independence, even for a short amount of time, was extremely terrifying.

SHAPIRO: The airline that you were flying was JetBlue, and you say you've had good experiences with them in the past. How have they responded to you about this?

PARISI: JetBlue has given me an apology, but only from their representative in the Syracuse location. I have not heard anyone from the corporate offices of JetBlue explaining that they are apologetic or what they plan to do going forward for other passengers to make sure that this doesn't continue to happen.

SHAPIRO: Senator Tammy Duckworth, who uses a wheelchair herself, has tried to address this through legislation. That's actually how we know that about two dozen wheelchairs every day are damaged by the airlines. What else do you think could be done to help solve this problem industry-wide?

PARISI: I think there's a few things that can be done. I think that there needs to be a special classification of assistive devices that they are not tagged the same way a piece of gate-tagged luggage would be. I think that every airline should have an internal team that focuses on disability issues. You know, this is a multibillion-dollar industry, and yet, frequently, they outsource these issues to third-party vendors so they can wipe their hands clean of it, and the passengers on the other side are left wondering, OK, what happens next?

One other thought that I have - I think it's all about training - training workers to treat people with disabilities with dignity. Frequently, we are brushed aside. We are looked at as extra work for people instead of people who are just like anybody else, just trying to live our lives, have our families, travel and get to work.

SHAPIRO: I just have to ask because I know you were flying to a bridal shower, did you make it?

PARISI: I did. I was very fortunate in that my parents happened to be picking me up from the airport this time, and my dad had an old, old wheelchair in the basement that he was able to rig up for me to use for a few hours. And so I was able to make the bridal shower, and we had a fantastic time.

SHAPIRO: That is Kristen Parisi. She is a writer who uses a wheelchair.

Thank you for speaking with us today.

PARISI: Thanks so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And after we spoke with Parisi, JetBlue responded to NPR's request for comment. The airline said it is, quote, "extremely rare for a wheelchair not to arrive at its destination." JetBlue apologized for Parisi's case and added that it will work with her to, quote, "ensure she is compensated for the frustration, although we know that does not fully make up for the experience she had with us."

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX BARCK'S "REUNION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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