October 22, 2003
If 14-year-old Bryce Wiley puts a safety light on his motorized wheelchair and stays on the side of the road, police in his hometown of Laurens promise they won't slap him with a fine.
The deal was struck Tuesday, about two weeks after Chief Rod Watkins threatened to sanction Bryce, who has muscular dystrophy, for choosing the street over the sidewalk to get around town.
Chief Watkins had come across Bryce's path while on patrol the night of Oct. 5 and said he almost hit the wheelchair because he barely could see its reflectors.
Bryce was in the street because he couldn't get to the sidewalk without curb cuts, and Chief Watkins stopped him because Iowa bans motorized wheelchairs from the street and prohibits anyone younger than 16 from using one on the sidewalk.
The state law conflicts with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and the situation signals the need for the statute to change, said Gov. Tom Vilsack and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, both Democrats.
"We should not be pitting a local law-enforcement officer who is simply trying to do his job against a young man who is simply trying to move about [in] his community," Mr. Vilsack said.
Mr. Harkin was a chief sponsor of the federal law, enacted in 1990.
"This is a wake-up call to small towns all over America," Mr. Harkin said. "They've got to put into planning how they're going to make their sidewalks accessible to people with disabilities."
Similar conflicts have occurred nationwide. A Sweet Springs, Mo., man with cerebral palsy won the right to use a golf cart on city streets after his family hired a lawyer and filed a complaint with the federal government. In Michigan, an appeals court affirmed that a man who has multiple sclerosis can use his motorized tricycle on Mackinac Island, which had banned all motorized vehicles but now allows electric wheelchairs and three-wheeled scooters.
The sidewalks in Laurens, a town with a population of 1,550 about 150 miles northwest of Des Moines, should have curb cuts that allow wheelchair access, said Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
"They either need to provide a safe way for citizens to use the sidewalks," Mr. Imparato said, "or they need to recognize citizens will need to get around another way."
Under his agreement with the town of Laurens, Chief Watkins said, Bryce must have a safety light installed on his wheelchair and abide by all traffic rules. Mike Wiley, Bryce's father, and Mayor Peter Hong negotiated the terms, he said.
"It was made plain that if in any way he violated the law he would be
cited," Chief Watkins said. "I hope Mr. Wiley gets his satisfaction, and
I hope his son doesn't lose his life in the process."
Copyright © 2003, Associated Press