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  'I call it harassment'
Harassed on the highway

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin is investigating the case of 14-year-old Bryce Wiley, who faces $15 fines for riding his motorized wheelchair on city streets in Laurens, IA. Read the Oct. 21 Des Moines Register story. | Read "Town threatens to ticket boy for using wheelchair" in Oct. 20 Des Moines Register.

Kelly Dillery of Sandusky, Ohio, was repeatedly cited -- and arrested -- in 1998 for driving her wheelchair in the street. Disability rights advocates rallied to her cause.

Read story from SILC Threads newsletter

Read story from Ragged Edge

by Betty L. Ingram

My husband dropped me off in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, at the Shriners on Sunday. When done, I left there and traveled along Avalon Ave. on the right side of the road in my wheelchair. As I passed 810 Avalon Ave., a car tooted behind me and scared me to death.

I jerked around to see who it was. It was a police car!

I pulled into the mini-mall parking lot. An officer by the name of "Goins" asked me my name. Where was I going, he asked. I told him I was going to Wal-Mart on Avalon; that my husband would pick me up there.

There was a law, Officer Goins said, that I am not allowed on the highway in a motorized vehicle.

I told him he was mistaken; that I wanted to see proof of that law. He called his captain.

Captain Lang soon arrived in another police car. When I asked to see the law, he got a small book out of his trunk and, after searching, read me 32.5.240: "Any vehicle on a road must have headlights and taillights."

I tried to tell them they were mistaken; that I was not in a "vehicle" but a wheelchair. They refused to listen. They would not even permit me to drive my chair on the side roads!

I had no way to reach my husband. I know no one who has a wheelchair lift van. The local government center was closed on Sundays.

They wanted me to take a taxi. I could not afford that on my limited income, I said. Didn't I have insurance to cover a taxi? No way!

None of this should have been relevant. I feel I have every right to travel in my wheelchair. If the city does not provide sidewalks, bicycle paths, accessible transportation, or other accommodations, then the city is at fault, not me.

I told I would stay at the mini-mall until my husband would find me. I told them I would not going home but would wait for my husband. My husband would have worried had he not found me at Wal-Mart.

They made it clear that they felt I was not cooperating with them. I was scared they would arrest me. I had refused to give them my address unless they ticketed me. It seemed we were at a standoff.

Lang and Goins called police headquarters; 45 minutes later, a Toyota pickup arrived. Its bed was fairly low to the ground. I showed the officers how to free wheel my chair. But the chair was too heavy for them to lift, even with 3 officers.

The pickup went back to the station and came back pulling a trailer with a ramp. With this, they finally got my chair on the pickup -- by now i was in the police car. They would not listen to me when I told them it was necessary to lock both chair wheels to prevent it rolling. They said it was "fine" as it was; that they would go slow.

We got to Wal-Mart, I in the police car, my chair in the pickup. Once again they refused to listen to me about free wheeling the chair. No; they said, they'd just turn it on and run it to me. Of course it zig-zagged all over the place!! I insisted they free wheel it but they simply ignored me.

They would not have wanted someone tampering with their shoes or their feet. My chair is the same for me. But they refused to listen.

I told them them I would be filing a lawsuit. Go ahead, they said.

They were only doing this because they did not want to see me hurt, they repeated.

No; I call it harassment. I am 65; I have traveled on roads all over the U. S. -- and the world, for that matter -- and never encountered anything like this except in Muscle Shoals, Alabama

I firmly believe this is a violation of my civil rights, a violation of the rights of every other disabled person who lives or goes inside the city of Muscle Shoals. The town might as well post a sign saying NO CRIPPLED ALLOWED -- the same as saying NO BLACKS ALLOWED.

Muscle Shoals is next door to Tuscumbia, the birthplace of Helen Keller. On June 9th this year, Tuscumbia passed Ordinance A244 establishing the ACCESS Committee of Tuscumbia. I just happen to be the chair of that committee.

I am coming out of the shock of what happened to me. I feel disgraced at having been put in this humiliating situation. I looked like a criminal to anyone passing by who saw me that day. All I want to do right now is bawl.

Posted Oct. 9, 2003

Betty Ingram is an activist in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

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