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Betty Ingram is harassed by police for driving her wheelchair on the highway in Muscle Shoals, AL

Rebecca Sturgill: Arrested for walking while disabled

  Highway Harrassment II

In Tilton, NH, wheelchair users staged a protest Nov. 3 over the lack of progress in installing a long promised sidewalk along a dangerous stretch of highway that leads to the town's shopping area.

"We've been waiting for two years for the project to be completed," William Tinker, leader of the protest, told reporters.

Activists assembled at the Tilton town hall with signs and leaflets, then paraded, single file, along the 1,200 foot strip along the Hyw 20 where the sidewalk had been promised, but was still not there. Tinker said he and other wheelchair users had to travel the dangerous highway routinely to get to the shopping area, which includes Tilton's pharmacy and post office. "I'm scared when I go along there,: protester Linda Morgan told reporters. "Some people drive right up to you and yell ad you. " 'Something needs to be done before someone is killed, said activist Tom Cagle, one of the protesters.

Work on the sidewalk will not begin until next summer, NH Dept. of Transportation spokesperson Alexander Vogt told reporters.

Bryce Wiley, 14, can ride his wheelchair in the street finally -- because local law conflicts with the Americans with Disabilties Act. Read final outcome of Wiley's ordeal in The Guardian. | EARLIER COVERAGE: Wiley faced $15 fines for riding his motorized wheelchair on city streets in Laurens, IA. Oct. 21 Des Moines Register story.

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 Denise Gilmore

It was night. I was on my way home. My town, like the town of Muscle Shoals where Betty Ingram lives, has very few sidewalks; those we have often abruptly end. There are no curb cuts. Telephone poles and bus stop benches are scattered along their length; my wheelchair cannot get around them. The only way to get around is on the road in my wheelchair.

I drove facing traffic. Suddenly, three police cruisers approached, one shining its spotlight on me, blinding me.

Two of the officers got out of their cars (the third one stayed in his cruiser-- to call for back-up in case I attempted a fast wheelchair getaway, I guess!) -- but neither approached me.

They seemed hesitant. One had his hand on his holstered pistol, and stayed near the cruiser. The other made his slow approach.

"That's a fine how do ya do!" I called out. "Blinding a woman in a wheelchair!"

I was scrambling for some humor in my fear. Would I be arrested?

"Ma'am, what are you doing out at this time of night?" he asked. "It's dangerous!"

"Good thing I'm with you, then," I grinned back. I was trying to be the comedian and get them to laugh.

I looked up into the sky. "BEAUTIFUL night for drive, isn't it officers?" I was doing my best John Candy imitation.

They didn't know what to make of me.

It's true I was on the wrong side of the road -- I wasn't driving along with traffic, but facing it. It was the safest way for me to travel on the narrow road, so I could see oncoming cars.

On the opposite side of the road, I knew, was a house with two big rottweilers who enjoyed leaping at folks going past the property. It was a weeknight and traffic was practically nil. So for me, this was the safer side. to be travelling.

But they might not see things that way.

And I'm sure my appearance did nothing to reassure them. A few minutes before they'd come along, I'd put a pair of tube socks on my hands, over my gloves. It was cold, and my thin gloves weren't keeping my hands warm. I kept the tube socks in my pouch for just such an emergency. So there I was, legs sticking way out on the wheelchair extensions, a thick blanket over my legs, a funny-looking hat with ear flaps, bright pink -- and white tube socks over both hands! Yes, I was a sight.

But I hadn't expected to be noticed by anyone. It was, after all, 1:30 in the morning.

I held my hands up to the officers, turning them as though I were in a fashion show. "Well, what do you think? Think this look will catch on?"

That got a smile out of the one who had spoken. The second policeman had taken his hand off his weapon. And the third climbed out of the car.

They began talking with me. What had put me in a mobilized wheelchair in the first place, they wanted to know. I needed to be on the other side of the road, they said.

The side I was driving along was the safer side, I told them -- and explained why. I had little choice, I added. Had they been at the last city council meeting, they would have heard the grand promises we kept hearing -- of sidewalks, of curb ramps -- that never happened.

But they continued to worry about me being hit by a car. They ended up giving me a police escort, them behind me, all the way up to where some sidewalks began again.

That was my first encounter. A week or two later, a policeman pulled up beside me, stopping in the middle of the street, him facing one way and me facing the other. He rolled down his passenger side window and yelled, "GET ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROAD, NOW!!!"

"I'd be happy to do that officer," I told him. "However, that side of the road is so full of pit holes that it's just too dangerous." As soon as I got to the next street, I'd be happy to move to the other side, I told him.

He wasn't satisfied, once again ordering me onto the other side. But when I told him, "I can imagine what this is going to look like to the judge in court if you arrest me," he sped away.

I scurried home.

A week later I encountered a yet another police car. This one didn't stop; he simply blinded me with his spotlight so I was forced to a complete stop until he passed by.

I called the police department after this.I wanted to file a complaint for harassment, I said. The man I spoke with took my name and address and asked me to tell him my story, which I did. Given the situation, it was all right for me to ride facing traffic, said the man who took my complaint.

Since then, I have not been bothered. But whenever I go out in my wheelchair along the highway, I am still afraid.

Posted Nov. 11, 2003

Denise Gilmore, who lives south of San Diego, will be happy when her streets have decent sidewalks.

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