Kelly Dillery and
The Sandusky Register

by Mary Johnson
Mary Johnson is Editor of Ragged Edge.

[Editor's note: A week after this story had been printed in the print edition of Ragged Edge magazine, the Sandusky Register ran the first story on the city's problems with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Register has now devoted a number of stories to the issue. The May/June Ragged Edge magazine will detail these changes in coverage.]

Kelly Dillery's practice of driving her wheelchair in the streets of Sandusky, Ohio, thus flouting a local law against 'pedestrians in the street,' has been widely reported.

The bigger, more important story is about the Ohio city administration's flouting of the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to install and maintain sidewalk curb cuts.

For 6 months, disabled people across the nation have been writing to the Sandusky Register, saying, 'Cover that story.' But it still hasn't happened.

On Sunday Nov. 15, the Sandusky Register runs the first of several editorials on Kelly Dillery. The woman has let her "pride get in the way." The "wheelchair-bound" woman's "street escapades" running her motorized wheelchair in the street with her 4-year-old daughter in her lap are "simply not safe." The Register wants her to "drop the practice entirely."

Sandusky police have warned Dillery 'several' times that the way she carries her daughter is unsafe, said Assistant Chief Robert Runner."

This second paragraph of the first story on Dillery in the Register, on Aug. 20, sets the tone for the coverage that follows. A Sandusky, Ohio motorist has filed a complaint with the Sheriff's office about a woman riding her wheelchair on a city street, her four-year-old daughter in her lap.

Dillery, 30 years old and unmarried, with muscular dystrophy, often travels in the street, said the Register. This is because Sandusky nine years after the Americans with Disabilities Act required cities to install curb ramps whenever a street was repaired or resurfaced has few curb cuts, and even fewer well-maintained ones. The paper doesn't seem to know about the law, though.

On Nov. 11 a second story reported that Dillery had rejected a plea bargain and "will face trial on child endangering charges." "If convicted, Dillery faces a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail." Both this and the Aug. 20 story are by reporter Kristopher Barry Weiss.

This article is about the Sandusky Register, not Kelly Dillery. Through a newspaper's (or television, or radio station's) reporting, people come to understand what an incident is about, what it means. Reporters acquire many facts; what they choose to include or leave out shapes how we come to see the reality of a situation that is almost always more complex than the version that we read with our morning coffee.

The story the Sandusky Register began to tell in August, and has continued to tell, has been a story with a single angle: Dillery being in the street is dangerous and should be stopped.

Police were in a "no-win" situation, Runner told Weiss. If Dillery's daughter Kelsi were seriously injured, "'we'd be having the conversation 'Why didn't (the police) do something to keep her out of the street?'" Dillery should use the Sandusky Transit Service, Runner said.

Weiss wrote, "Dillery said she can't use STS because she doesn't have someone to accompany her. STS's Carrie Smith said the STS is a curb-to-curb service and its employees are not allowed to help Dillery once she leaves an STS vehicle."

The first editorial on the subject, on Nov. 15, discusses Dillery's misplaced spunkiness. The writer "admires her" "more of us need the same courage" but says what Dillery should do is put her daughter "in an enclosed three-wheeled carriage behind her wheelchair."

The editorial fails to mention the problem with the Sandusky curb-to-curb service. Nor does it raise the issue of the dubious legality of Sandusky's curb-cut program. The motorist who filed the complaint has remains unnamed; the Sandusky Register seemingly makes no effort to get a name.

The Register's focus is Dillery. Her story offers a cautionary tale to other Sandusky wheelchair users, say activists from neighboring Toledo, about the perils to befall the uppity cripple.

Yet the larger story is right in front of reporters. A Dillery neighbor tells Weiss that "most of Sandusky's streets aren't handicapped accessible. What's she supposed to do?" Weiss reports this quote in his Aug. 20 story. The sentence hangs there, while he returns to Asst. Police Chief Runner, who says it's not safe for daughter Kelsi if Dillery is in the street.

The issue of bad sidewalks and missing curb cuts doesn't come up in the Nov. 11 story at all.

The Nov. 15 editorial does mention the sidewalks, however: "Dillery claims she's forced to the streets because of inadequate sidewalks," says the editorials. "There's truth to that," it acknowledges. Sidewalk quality is "inconsistent," it says. They're often uneven and cracked. And the transit system, it says, clearly isn't meeting Dillery's needs.

But it drops the matter with no mention that the city is likely violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. "Our biggest concern is with Dillery," says the editorial writer. Riding her wheelchair in the street "is simply not safe."

Laws have been on the books for years requiring equal access," writes Daniel Wilkins of Luckey, Ohio. "Why isn't it so in Sandusky?"

In the days following the Nov. 15 editorial, a number of letters appear virtually all from disabled people disabled people who don't live in Sandusky.

"Safety officials . . . ought to be enforcing Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act," writes Linda Rammler of Middlefield, CT. Dillery "does what she has to do because the world she lives in is not very accessible," says Lisa Bervin of St. Petersburg, Fla. Ellen Cecil of Garland, TX notes that "Dillery probably has the makings of a fine lawsuit against your city for lack of accessibility."

The letters simply irritate Sandusky Register Managing Editor Todd Franko. The Kelly Dillery story has been spread over the internet and the several dozen e-mails that get sent ("more than 40," he writes) to Franko seem a deluge: they're the "most responses we've seen here in some time possibly ever over one issue."

Franko characterizes the e-mails as showing "scorn for the law enforcement community." His editorial, which he says, "showed sympathy for Kelly but also scrutiny of her and others" has been the object of "scorn and outrage."

"The bulk of responses are coming from non-Ohio folks emailing their outrage to us," writes Franko. Perhaps, he says, "the national respondents are lacking in the details that local folks know and see." Franko does not explain this allusion. Nothing has been reported in the newspaper that has not been spread over the internet. But the implication is clear: People in Sandusky find Dillery a nuisance.

Virtually every letter printed mentions the illegality of Sandusky's violations of the ADA, yet Franko has still scrupulously avoided any discussion of wrongdoing on the part of city officials, choosing, instead, to focus on Dillery: "Local complaints and police activity don't portray a conscientious pedestrian." Franko is sticking to his guns: Kelly's the problem.

A telling point: throughout the editorial, Franko refers to the 30-year-old woman by her first name a tactic it's doubtful he'd use in reporting on nondisabled Sandusky residents.

The letters don't seem to affect the way the Register covers the story. A few weeks later, another Dillery story appears this one about her being cited again for being in the street.

It's not until after the holidays that Dillery's name again appears in the Register. A new reporter on the story reports that a march is being planned for Dillery by activists from Toledo and other Ohio community (there seem to be no activists in Sandusky to organize such an effort). The rally will be followed by a press conference in front of the Erie county courthouse.

Mary Butler, of the Linking Employment Abilities and Potential LEAP center in nearby Elyria tells reporter Heidi Smith that "we want to talk to anyone and everyone about accessibility in Sandusky."

Smith quotes Butler on the subject of paternalism. Smith reports it's "equivalent to racism to those with disabilities": that activists see it as a "let us take care of you" approach they dislike.

Butler has followed Dillery in the street, writes Smith, and has noted that the sidewalks are impassable in most places, that curb cuts have curbs themselves sometimes three or four inches. She reports Butler's suspicion that "Dillery's speech problem, caused by her disability, leads people to believe that she does not have the mental capacity to be a good mother."

Smith also interviews Dillery. "My biggest fear is that they'll take Kelsi away," Dillery tells Smith. "She's my life."

Focusing once more on Dillery rather than the situation of streets in Sandusky, Smith seeks comment from Sandusky Law Director Don Icsman and City Prosecutor Robert DeLamatre.

"We need to get to the root of the problem," DeLamatre tells Smith. He's not referring to the lack of access in Sandusky. He's referring to Dillery's fitness to care for her child safely. Icsman worries to Smith about the city failing to enforce the law. "There's a liability for not enforcing laws," he says. He's not referring to the ADA. He's referring to child endangerment laws.

Nearly six months after the first story about Dillery in the streets of Sandusky, the Register has still not reported the responses of Sandusky's law director or city prosecutor or other city officials to activists' charges that the city is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is not even clear that the Sandusky Register has raised the issue of the violation of federal laws with officials. However, it has repeatedly raised the issue of Kelly Dillery's violation of child endangering laws.

In a story Jan. 22 by reporter Michael Brice about yet another Dillery court appearance (this one related to her citation in December), the Americans with Disabilities Act is finally mentioned. A police officer "acknowledged under cross-examination he did not know if [the curb cuts] met the criteria of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which require curb cuts to be flush with the street," Brice wrote. Later in the story, Brice reports Butler noting that the police "have no idea what the ADA says about curb cuts."

As the child endangering case moves inexorably toward jury trial, a motion is made by Dillery attorneys for courtroom modifications. Sandusky Municipal Court, it turns out, is not accessible.


Read the articles The Sandusky Register has written about Kelly Dillery by going to their website at http://www.sanduskyregister.com and using their search engine to search for "Kelly Dillery."


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