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'They literally just took my legs away': Mum shares heartbreaking picture of her disabled girl, 13, after Jetstar staff force her out of her electric wheelchair to board a flight

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 4/07/2019 Hannah Moore For Daily Mail Australia
a man sitting on a motorcycle: Billie Boele (pictured left) was left sobbing and petrified after having her electric wheelchair taken away and replaced with a chair modified to navigate the thin aisles of an aircraft © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Billie Boele (pictured left) was left sobbing and petrified after having her electric wheelchair taken away and replaced with a chair modified to navigate the thin aisles of an aircraft

A mum has shared a heartbreaking picture of her disabled 13-year-old daughter after Jetstar forced her out of her electric wheelchair and into a smaller chair to board a flight. 

Billie Boele has an undiagnosed physical disability similar to hereditary spastic paraplegia, but is able to independently move around with the help of her electric chair.

The young girl has flown around the country to play boccia, a version of bocce designed for people in wheelchairs, and has completed a number of overseas trips, all without incident. 

But on March 29, she was seen looking distraught and petrified, sobbing as she leaned into her mother's arms while strapped into a manual wheelchair modified to navigate the thin aisles of an aircraft.

Her mother Heike Fabig told Daily Mail Australia Jetstar staff had forced her daughter into the chair at check in, in Sydney, two hours before her flight to Launceston, citing a company policy she believes is discriminatory.

'Jetstar is not our airline of choice, and we were prepared for some difficulties, but we were surprised by the early time we had to relinquish the chair and the reasoning for it - there was no debate,' she said.

a man sitting at a table with a plate of food: Her mother, Heike Fabig said the family were told the change was Jetstar's policy, but the modified seat left her daughter, now 13, feeling helpless and petrified she would fall out © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Her mother, Heike Fabig said the family were told the change was Jetstar's policy, but the modified seat left her daughter, now 13, feeling helpless and petrified she would fall out 'Billie was prepared [to have to move into a manual wheelchair] but as soon as we put her in it, she burst into tears and was inconsolable for about five minutes.'

As she sobbed, Billie told her mother: 'They literally just took my legs away.'

Ms Fabig explained that while her daughter's legs had not been removed, her ability to move freely had, which was worse.

'It's not taking her legs away, it's taking her independence away, because the wheelchair is her legs,' she said.

'She's 12, she doesn't want to be strapped up and driven around, just like no 12-year-old wants to be strapped up and driven around.'

a group of people riding on the back of a computer: Billie (right) was travelling from Sydney to Launceston to compete in Boccia, a form of Bocce designed for people in wheelchairs © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Billie (right) was travelling from Sydney to Launceston to compete in Boccia, a form of Bocce designed for people in wheelchairs

Ms Fabig said for the next two hours, her daughter was afraid she would fall out of the seat, as it is more narrow than a regular wheelchair and distressed at the loss of her ability to move on her own.

'She couldn't relax,' Ms Fabig said. 'She was unsafe, uncomfortable, frightened. The whole time I had to leave my hand on her chest [to help her feel more secure]. 

'We wedged her between the table and my chair while we ate so she felt like she wouldn't fall out.'

Ms Fabig said she 'absolutely understands' the value of the aisle wheelchairs, but said they should never be used before embarking on an aircraft.  

'I have had issues before where I was the one asking for those chairs, I absolutely understand the value of them, but that was on the aircraft or at the door of the aircraft,' she said.

'Of course it is a valuable piece of equipment, but not two hours before you check in. There is no need for a chair like that where really you can drive to the door.'

Jetstar's policy is to take all electric wheelchairs at check-in, which is what happened with Billie's chair. 

Billie has travelled extensively to play the sport, and gone on several overseas holidays. Ms Fabig said she had never had such a distressing experience © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Billie has travelled extensively to play the sport, and gone on several overseas holidays. Ms Fabig said she had never had such a distressing experience

But Ms Fabig said this was not the reason she was given at the time. She said she was told Billie's chair had to be taken early because there was no lift near the gate, and it was an unreasonable amount of work to get her daughter to the door of the aircraft and push the wheelchair back to where luggage was being loaded on to the plane.  

Ms Fabig said the process was also not repeated in Launceston, where the young girl was able to drive herself to the door of the aircraft before her chair was taken to be put in the luggage hold.  

'Jetstar was telling us there was no lift anywhere near the gate. But that's not what they tell you on their site where they say it is all electric wheelchairs,' she said.  

'It's either one or the other. If it's standard procedure I think it's discrimination, but it's not [standard]. In Launceston they don't do it. 

'I just want to know what's going on. I want to know why they do what they do, because I don't think they understand the implications. 

'In 2019 can we not come up with a non discriminatory and non invasive way of boarding people on to aircrafts?'   

a man with a football ball: Ms Fabig said she believed Jetstar's policy was discriminatory, and in no instance should her daughter have been offered a modified chair to sit in for that long © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Ms Fabig said she believed Jetstar's policy was discriminatory, and in no instance should her daughter have been offered a modified chair to sit in for that long

At the very least, Ms Fabig said her daughter should have been provided with a regular sized wheelchair she did not feel she would fall out of.  

'My issue is with the provision in their disability access facilitation plan, where they have a standard procedure that says an electric wheelchair must be left behind,' she explained. 

'The plan says the person must go into a manual chair which could be an aisle chair or a regular chair, and must be pushed by someone else. 

'You basically take a person's independence away. 

'My second issue is within that regulation, we were only offered an aisle chair which is extra unsafe, on top of taking away her independence. Neither of those are necessary.'

Ms Fabig detailed her concerns in an open letter to Jetstar CEO Gareth Evans over the weekend, and says the airline is in the process of investigating her concerns.

A spokesman for the airline said Jetstar takes 'the safety and comfort of passengers who require specific assistance very seriously'. 

Ms Fabig had to advocate for her teenage son Kai in 2015 after an aisle chair was not provided on a flight and she was forced to carry him to the bathroom (pictured) © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Ms Fabig had to advocate for her teenage son Kai in 2015 after an aisle chair was not provided on a flight and she was forced to carry him to the bathroom (pictured) 'We are looking into Ms Fabig’s and her daughter’s experience to better understand what happened,' he said.  

'We appreciate their boarding was frustrating and the travel could have been smoother and we are in contact with Ms Fabig about the experience.'

This is not the first time Ms Fabig has had to advocate for her children after a disastrous flying experience.  

Ms Fabig made headlines in 2015 after she had to drag her teenage son, who has HSP and Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, to the bathroom while on board a flight with another airline because no aisle seat was provided. 

At the time, Ms Fabig said she had called ahead to ensure an aisle seat would be on board, as her son could not walk on his own, and was furious to see none had been provided.  

She complained to the Human Rights Commission and the issue was resolved through conciliation.  

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