John Duty Collins III of Alexandria is climbing stairs, rolling up new ramps and reaching new ground in his wheelchair, and he is taking other wheelchair-bound persons with him.
He was a prime mover in starting Alexandria's first public transportation service for the handicapped, called DOT.
"He's been one of the leaders in the community to bring people together for a disability movement in the area," said Doris Ray, program service director for the D.C. Center for Independent Living.
Ray said that before Collins came along disabled persons were shunted aside, but that Collins acted as a catalyst for people throughout the metropolitan area. She said that he brought people together to raise their collective voices.
He heads a nonprofit Northern Virginia agency that helps handicapped people find jobs and housing, provides counseling and works to improve the public image of the handicapped. And at home, he runs a family business called Van Go Corp., a professional management and service firm.
"Collins is building a better community for everyone, including disabled persons. He asks, 'How do we give to our community?' not 'How do we take?' " said Sharon Mistler, executive director of the Independent Center of Northern Virginia.
Collins, 38, has a rare disease that is characterized by progressive bone growth. "My joints are pretty frozen," said Collins, who has not been able to walk for the past 20 years.
Collins has been giving Northern Virginia residents hope for ridding their world of structural and mental barriers. He and others have made several movie theaters and new recreational centers accessible to the handicapped.
The Chinquapin Center at 3210 King St. in Alexandria has a 25-meter swimming pool into which a handicapped person can wheel his or her chair. The center has private dressing rooms with special attachments for the disabled.
According to Lisa Zaricki, the center's assistant aquatics supervisor, if you are wheelchair-bound, you can literally go into the water in your chair. Zaricki said she has about nine handicapped people who are regulars.
According to Sandy Modell, transit coordinator for Alexandria, in May the DOT bus made more than a thousand trips. The bus, which has operated for two years, serves about 300 people.
"John has always made sure that Alexandria provided the best care for its citizens," Modell said.
When Collins is not working on behalf of the handicapped, he is at home in the North Ridge neighborhood of Alexandria at one of his seven computers. If he tires, his bedroom is just seconds away. His office is filled with computer books and souvenirs of Texas, his home state. Collins is president and founder of his family's business.
He conducts some business outside his home. He provides volunteer services to Independent Living for the Handicapped in Washington, a corporation dedicated to raising funds for physically disabled persons.
Collins also serves as president on the board of directors of the Independent Center of Northern Virginia. The center, on Ninth Street in Alexandria, is in the process of moving to 2111 Wilson Blvd., Arlington.
Collins recently received a public service award from the Alexandria Port Packet newspaper. Collins was nominated by the Packet readers and later recommended by a committee made up of Alexandria's mayor, city manager, president of the League of Women Voters and president of the Chamber of Commerce.
Collins is constantly busy between his family business and his volunteer work, but he credits his parents as his support network.
"They're my secret weapons. They support me in so many ways," Collins said. His father, John D. Collins Jr., has created a transportation system that allows Collins to move in his wheelchair from one level to another of their two-level house by using a motorized device alongside the stairway that is similar to trolley tracks.
Collins' typical day starts at 6 a.m. It takes him two hours to get dressed, eat breakfast and prepared for the day. About 9:45 a.m. he begins work at one of his computers.
"I usually read the newspaper while I am on hold on the telephone, but it never works," Collins said.
He enjoys talking about handicapped issues because he wants to get people involved. He frequently appears on local television shows to promote his causes.
In early May, Collins appeared on Channel 5's "Panorama" along with Richard Simmons, the exercise buff, who came bouncing into the studio. Collins said that Simmons, an advocate of a healthful diet, grabbed his soft drink out of his hand. "I never saw that again," Collins said.
Simmons tried to get him to do an exercise, which is extremely difficult, Collins said, "when you can only move your hands." Simmons settled for having Collins do a breathing exercise.