FAIRFAX, Va. — The Fairfax Falcons Paralympic basketball team provides kids with physical disabilities the opportunity to play the game they love. However, when they returned to Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C,. from a basketball tournament in Wichita, Kansas, their wheelchairs were damaged or destroyed.
That's according to Melissa Buckles, one of the players' parents.
She says they advised the ground crew to leave the wheels on the chairs. However, they were all take off.
"Everyone witnessed basketball chairs and everyday chairs being thrown around like pieces of luggage," Buckles said. "They are the way they get around, they are the way they play sports, and they are the key to independence and livelihood."
Ben Heim is part of the Falcons basketball team and said he witnessed the same thing. "
We consider wheelchairs an extension of our body," he said. "It can't be handled like a piece of luggage."
When the team finally received their wheelchairs at Reagan Airport, the nightmare only got worse. Pieces of their wheelchairs were broken, bent and unable to function. Melissa Buckles posted on her Facebook page that seven wheelchair were damaged or even destroyed beyond repair.
Most of the team flew back on American Airlines. The team filed a damaged baggage claim with American Airlines. According to Ben's father and Falcons JV coach Matt Heim, it could take weeks before getting back a new or repaired wheelchair.
"There was one person who already missed a week of school because they didn't have a wheelchair," Matt Heim said
American Airlines tells WUSA9 they take these cases very seriously and will make sure it gets resolved.
Airport travel has its challenges for those who use wheelchairs.
"We are thankful to board first on airlines but we get off the airline last. You're giving the people who need the most time, the least amount of time," Matt Heim explained.
This experience has made it harder for some of the players to ever travel again. "It was a traumatic experience," said Matt Heim. "It's kind of a sad story that we are putting people though these challenges."
Matt and Ben believe airline travel is important to those who rely on wheelchairs.
"If you can't travel, your world is limited," said Matt. "I have faith this is an opportunity to get better."