November 16, 2005

Dying In the Streets: Wheelchair Users Face Tragic Choices Nationwide

by Mary Johnson

The story of 40-year-old St. Louis resident Elizabeth Bansen, who was was struck and killed by an SUV on Nov. 2 as she drove her wheelchair in the street from a corner store near her home, is, tragically, far from an isolated incident.

On Sunday a Carmel Valley CA woman was hit and dragged by a vehicle as she traveled along the street. At the time of this writing, news reports had not identified the woman.

Two weeks ago, Thomos Lacy of Kountze, Texas died after being thrown several feet from his motorized scooter by a vehicle in what police have called a hit-and-run accident. The driver was intoxicated, say news reports.

In October, a Jacksonville, FL, man was killed while driving his wheelchair in the street -- the vehicle's driver wasn't at fault there either, said police. (Read story.)

Last January, Garden Grove CA resident Anita Plunkett was hit by a car while crossing an intersection, while across the country in The Bronx, Juan Jimenez was mowed down by a late-model black Mitsubishi sport-utility vehicle.

In February, Patricia Hofer was struck by a black pickup truck on West State St. in Rockford IL while wheeling down a dark street. There are no actual sidewalks in the area, and it was raining," police told reporters. The driver was not cited.

Last summer, 76-year-old Addison Whipple of Fullerton CA was killed when he was struck by a minivan while traveling along Almond St. in his motorized wheelchair. The driver was not charged. A year earlier, Hubert McDonald, on his way to the Veteran's Administration in Fayetteville NC, driving down the street in his wheelchair, was hit and killed -- ironically, by a driver who was also a wheelchair user.

From the February 12, 2005 Orange County (CA) Register:

Recent wheelchair-user deaths
Died: Jan. 20
Details: Young was strong-arming her wheelchair up Broadway Street in Costa Mesa at night when a motorist passing through an intersection at Westminster Avenue struck her, throwing Young about 100 feet.
The motorist, a 27-year-old Newport Beach man, told police he never saw Young. He was not cited.
Died: Nov. 6
Details: Nguyen was struck and killed while walking his wheelchair across the middle of a street in Westminster in the predawn hours. Police are still looking for the driver, who they say should have seen Nguyen crossing Hazard Avenue west of Stratir Place.
Died: Oct. 20
Details: Gilmore, a student at Cal State Fullerton, was hit while piloting his motorized wheelchair under rainy skies through a marked crosswalk on Nutwood Avenue at Titan Drive in Fullerton. The driver, a 22-year-old Placentia woman, was not cited.

Wheelchair users nationwide risk their lives daily by being forced into the street because their communities, despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, have not bothered to install curb cuts or maintain sidewalks.

In St. Louis, Bansen was unable to travel on the sidewalk near her home, so she took to the street.

"Much of the sidewalk along Bansen's three-block route is either broken or choked with weeds," wrote Jeremy Kohler of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Curb ramps are absent in key places, blocking access to the few passable stretches." (Read Path of resistance from the Nov. 10, 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

But that story didn't come for a full week after Bansen's death. Early reports said police did not know why she had been driving in the street on St. Louis's "busy Delmar Boulevard."

Wheelchair user Kerri Morgan was frustrated by early reports of Bansen's death. "It was driving me crazy. In the reports in the radio, TV and newspaper about this woman in the middle of the street, why would she be in the middle of the street?" Morgan told KDSK-TV News that she figured it was the bad sidewalk. But that issue didn't surface until later.

Finally, angry disability rights activists began to speak out about the death.

"If this was something that the public cared about, Lisi Bansen wouldn't have had to wheel in the street," Colleen Starkloff, of the St. Louis-based Starkloff Disability Institute told reporters. "Our policymakers need to be aware of this and they need to get on it right away so we don't have people dying as they try to go about their day-to-day business."

No one had filed a complaint about the lack of curb cuts along Bensen's street, said police. Starkloff called that response 'a poor excuse."

The driver, Arnold Booker, told police he did not see Bansen.

Bansen's death is just the latest in a continuing litany.

No national statistics are compiled on the numbers of wheelchair riders' deaths caused by inaccessible sidewalks. No national group monitors these incidents. And far too many communities ignore legal requirements to install and maintain sidewalks, virtually ensuring that sooner or later some wheelchair rider, forced into the street, will meet with an accident or death.

In March, 2001, Fresno, CA wheelchair user Elias Gutierrez was killed when he was struck by a car as he was traveling in his power wheelchair next to the curb on Palm Avenue near Cornell. There were no curb cuts available to allow him to get onto the sidewalk. For more than a year, the 60-year-old activist had been complaining about the lack of sidewalks with curb ramps in the areas where he had to travel, saying he was being forced into the streets to travel to shopping and to visit friends. "It's our worst nightmare," Fresno disability activist Ed Eames said. Gutierrez had "become the victim of this city's wanton lack of concern with the issue of making sidewalks a safe haven for people in wheelchairs," said Eames.

The evening of Gutierrez's death, Fresno television stations broadcast the image of an overturned wheelchair on the sidewalk of Palm, and a single shoe in the street.

In communities where there are activist disability groups drawing attention to the issue, as in St. Louis and Fresno, some attention is paid to the issue. Perhaps, even, curb cuts become a priority. But in most U.S. communities, the deaths pass with little outcry.

And in what can only be called a bigoted double-whammy, wheelchair users often risk arrest for traveling the streets in their wheelchairs. Local communities' responses to the "problem" of wheelchairs in the street is not to provide curb ramps and safe sidewalks but to cite and ticket them for operating an unlicensed vehicle in the roadway.

in October, 2003, 14-year-old Bryce Wiley ran afoul of the law in Laurens IA when he drove his wheelchair in the street -- local law prohibited "personal transportation vehicles" -- and planned to fine him $15 until publicity got them to drop the charges. (The town, ironically, got its 15 minutes of fame in the movie "The Straight Story," about Laurens resident Alvin Straight, who drove his riding mower across Iowa to visit his dying brother.) Bryce Wiley was in the street, it turned out, because the town had not bothered yet to install curb ramps to its sidewalks.

In Alabama that same month, Betty Ingram ran up against police in Muscle Shoals as she wheeled down the highway; the next month, Denise Gilmore told of similar harassment in California.

Yet a Meadville PA man who sued his city over the lack of curb cuts was reportedly harrassed by fellow citizens, who evidently did not approve of his taking the city to court.

Perhaps the most famous case of someone harrassed for riding a wheelchair in the street because of missing curb cuts and bad sidewalks was Kelly Dillery of Sandusky, Ohio, who was repeatedly cited -- and arrested -- in the late 1990s for driving her wheelchair in the street. Disability rights advocates rallied to her cause. A lawsuit was filed against Sandusky, charging that the city violated Title 2 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city appealed, asserting that Title 2 was "not enforceable as a private cause of action." The Sixth Circuit finally overruled the city's appeal, telling Sandusky that "Title II does not merely prohibit intentional discrimination. It also imposes on public entities the requirement that they provide ... meaningful access to public services. (The case was Ability Center of Greater Toledo, et al., v. City of Sandusky). More on the case from The Ability Center.

Disability groups continue to sue communities over a lack of curb cuts -- a suit was filed against Vacaville, CA in the spring of 2004; the previous year, the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear an appeal from Sacramento over a lower court decision that required it to make its sidewalks accessible.

And just a few weeks ago, the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans took Detroit to court over the same problem -- missing or poorly constructed curb cuts. (Read more.)

The problem is that these suits are spotty and infrequent. There's no nationally coordinated effort to require cities to install curb cuts and maintain sidewalks. And in many cases, even when a lawsuit is won, it's a long time before a city gets around to putting in the curb cuts, or doing them correctly. Money is always the excuse.

Meanwhile, people continue to die. And most commuities, like St. Louis, have no idea why disabled people drive their wheelchairs in the street, or realize that disabled people are dying nationwide while city councils wring their hands over the requirement for curb cuts.

See also: (Wheelchair "scooter" users nationwide have pressed their communities for sidewalks and safer highways)

Mary Johnson edits Ragged Edge.

Posted on November 16, 2005