Charles Love was, by his own account, steering his motorized wheelchair down Richmond Highway south of Alexandria after a shopping trip last Thursday when a Fairfax County police officer stopped him and charged him with "playing on a highway."
Love, 35, who was crippled 15 years ago when a drunk driver struck his motorcycle, says he was simply being a good pedestrian. "Anybody who goes up and down the streets here, whether you're old or a little kid, has to do it in the street," he argues. "It's a miserable, lousy deal." The section of Richmond Highway south of Alexandria where he was ticketed is near the spot on the same roadway where he had his accident.
The sidewalk outside Love's Flamingo Drive house trailer in the Groveton area of Fairfax isn't wide enough to support Love's wheelchair. And on Ladson Lane and adjacent sections of Richmond Highway, there are no sidewalks at all.
Performing even simple tasks can take on discouraging proportions for the suburban disabled, agrees Reese Robrahn, executive director of the D.C.-based American Coalition of Citizens With Disabilities. "We're seeing more and more areas with proper sidewalks and curb cuts, but it's still just a fraction of the total number that need to be done."
Robrahn, who is blind, is well aware of the debilitating aspects of everyday life for the disabled.
"For a person in a wheelchair, when they come to a building and the door isn't very demeaning. You have to rely on people. . . . Whatever spunk a person's got is just worn down," he says. "There are parts of the metro area where invalids don't have to worry about these things, if they can afford them."
But Fairfax County police, while sympathetic, defend their actions, "Certainly, his [Love's] situation is an unfortunate one, but consider the situation of the motorist driving along at 45 miles per hour and suddenly being confronted with a wheelchair moving right at you," says police spokesman Warren Carmichael.
Carmichael says Love has been the subject of "numerous citizen complaints" and has received warnings from officers for the past two years. Love reportedly had been warned once on the day he was ticketed.
When Officer John Burdette arrived at the scene, Carmichael says, he observed Love wheeling down the center of a traffic land on Ladson Lane and "cars had to swerve to avoid him." Love is scheduled to appear April 15 in Fairfax traffic court.
"If they put in some decent sidewalks, there wouldn't be a problem,' Love says, sitting in his wheelchair with its "Stan Parris for Congress' sticker on the back. "I was just trying to get home that day to fix dinner. It's bad, and the holes are so deep that you never know what you're going to drop into."
To run errands, Love says, he has to travel about two miles round trip in the street "in normal fashion . . . which is facing oncoming traffic." And there is the problem of "curb scrapers. . . . Once I was coming along the street and a woman backed out into me, even though she said she saw me in the rear view mirror."
Love says his less than $300-per-month disability income prevents him from living in areas where travel is easier for invalids. If he could, he says, he'd move to Las Vegas, but not for recreation. The reason:
"I'd go because it's all flat and the weather is dry."