The Parking Placard Glut

Illustration by Mark Adams

Supply and demand is a straightforward concept until it’s applied to the use of disabled parking permits.  That’s when you step through the looking glass into a nightmare scenario where demand for parking permits is rapidly increasing (mostly from people who don’t really need them), while the supply of accessible parking spaces is quickly running out. When you factor in all the fakes, phonies and frauds who take advantage of a deeply flawed system, along with an aging baby-boomer generation and the rising number of disabled Iraq-war veterans, you’ve got a genuine crisis that is rapidly approaching critical mass.

For those who genuinely qualify for disabled parking, the problem is guaranteed to get worse before it gets better. Fraudulent abuse of disabled parking will continue until sweeping, nationwide solutions are devised. The need for education, outreach and cooperation between the disabled and nondisabled populations has never been greater. Anyone who is skeptical about this looming crisis should consider the following:

• According to a recent report in The New York Times, at least 227 workers at Miami International Airport were caught parking near airport terminals with illegally obtained disabled parking permits. Many were seen walking from their cars, unassisted and frequently with heavy baggage in hand.

• In Boston, a recent crime spree involved a group of thieves who used sledge hammers to smash windshields and steal disabled parking permits from their legitimate owners. An unrelated study in 2007 found that out of 1,000 parking permits that were inspected in downtown Boston, fully one third were being used by nondisabled drivers, including 49 permits issued to people who had died.

• When residents and commuters in Austin, Texas, discovered that disabled parking permits allowed all-day free parking in the downtown area, fraudulent use of permits increased by 300 percent, costing the city an estimated $1 million in annual parking revenues. The same scenario is playing out in most major American cities.

• In California, where permit abuse is most rampant, one out of 16 drivers has a disabled parking permit — more than double the ratio of disabled drivers nationwide, according to ADA statistics.

• In South Carolina alone, nearly 137,000 permanent disabled parking permits were issued in 2007 — 24,000 more than were issued in 2003. Similar increases are occurring nationwide.

• In October 2006, disabled Charleston, S.C., resident Frank Rupp witnessed a scenario that has grown increasingly common among nondisabled drivers eager to avoid daily parking expenses: A contractor handing out bogus parking permits to his construction crew so they could park their trucks all day for free in disabled parking spaces located near their construction site.

• Disabled parking permits are bought, sold and traded on websites like eBay and Craigslist, and black-market permits can be purchased, like drugs and guns, on the streets of major cities, typically costing around $25. “Legitimate-looking” permanent and temporary permits can also be purchased — in bulk, no less — from various online retailers.

For better or worse, a common form of interaction between disabled and nondisabled Americans revolves around disabled parking spaces, and these encounters are often accompanied by simmering emotions of confrontation, resentment, accusation (substantiated or not), and open hostility.

Sometimes humor is the best way to acknowledge the problem. In a recent episode of ABC’s hit series, Desperate Housewives, the spoiled, self-indulgent Gabrielle used her husband’s blindness as a convenient excuse to abuse his disabled parking permit. When confronted by a disabled driver (played by paraplegic actor Mitch Longley), she pushes him, wheelchair and all, down a sloped parking lot and says to herself, “Well, it’s official: I’m going to hell.”

Surprisingly, the writers of that episode actually got it right in terms of humorously dramatizing a hot-button issue: While poking fun at Gabrielle’s obvious guilt, Desperate Housewiveshighlighted the glaring contradiction behind most permit abuse: The violators know they’re guilty, yet they abuse the permits anyway.

Why so Easy to Cheat?
What makes it so easy to violate the rights of the disabled, when similarly insulting another minority group would be considered unthinkable?

“People have a difficult time envisioning themselves as being disabled,” says Fred Shotz, a long-time disability rights advocate and president of All Disabled Americans, Inc., an advocacy group in Hollywood, Fla. “You’re not going to wake up tomorrow and suddenly be African-American, but you could wake up and suddenly be disabled. People have a tough time with that, so they don’t develop any kind of ‘mental alliance’ or empathy with a population they would never want to identify with. It’s too scary and dangerous.”

So, while nondisabled people grapple with their fear of disability, the social disconnect that separates those with disabilities from the mainstream is further complicated by a flawed system that actually promotes the abuse of disabled parking. Owing to the broad definition of disability put forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act, doctors can indiscriminately approve permanent or temporary disabled parking permits for people with almost any malady from “high stress” to a sprained ankle.

As a result, far too many permits are issued nationwide, with no concurrent increase in the number of disabled parking spaces as mandated by the ADA Accessibility Guidelines, which presently require at least one accessible parking space in every parking lot (if only one, it must be van-accessible), or three accessible spaces per every hundred “normal” ones.

You needn’t be a math whiz to know we’re heading for a meltdown. And while the ADA is consistent in determining who qualifies for disabled parking nationwide, the issuance of permits and their subsequent enforcement (including fines for parking violations) varies from state to state, resulting in a veritable quagmire of confusing inconsistencies.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the disabled parking controversy is further complicated by a mind-numbing array of ancillary issues, such as the crucial difference between “normal” and “van-accessible” parking spaces (and the ADA-stipulated ratio of one to another); varying degrees of police enforcement (typically minimal, due to higher priorities, low fines and lack of revenue incentive); and state-by-state differences in the permits themselves, with some being permanent, others renewed every four or six years, some issued two-per-customer (for use in various vehicles), and some with expiration dates that can easily be altered.

What can be done to promote effective reform of the system? Given the shocking lack of common ethical courtesy among permit violators, should we consider Big Brother/federal oversight, as opposed to state-to-state confusion? Should all disabled parking spaces be van-accessible (with wide access aisles for lifts, ramps, etc.), as they currently are in Florida? With regard to parking, should the definition of disability be limited to obvious mobility impairments? Should different permits and privileges be assigned according to severity of disability? Should disabled drivers pay for parking like everyone else (thus eliminating the primary incentive to cheat), and if not, why not? Should photo IDs and other biometric data be added to permits, or would that allow criminals to easily target vulnerable victims? Are there better methods of matching permits to their users?

These are just a few of the many questions that must be answered if we are to move toward a more efficient, tamper-proof method of issuing and enforcing permits. In the meantime — and it could be a decade or more before effective changes are made — more and more cities are finding encouraging results with civilian enforcement programs.

Volunteer Enforcement Programs that Work
“Our chief of police is incredibly supportive,” says Kris Call, one of 42 people presently serving in the Citizens Helping in Police Services program, a volunteer association in Kennewick, Wash., started in 1994. In addition to disabled parking enforcement, the group performs other services like marking abandoned vehicles, placing speed-limit radar monitors, and doing maintenance checks on the city’s water-storage tanks, freeing the police to tackle higher priorities.

According to Call, applicants go through a six-week, two-nights-per-week “Citizen’s Academy” where they learn all facets of the police department, qualifying them to become CHIPs volunteers. When a violation is spotted and confirmed by absence of a permit (suspected violators with permits are mostly ignored), volunteers working in pairs take photos of the offending vehicle and write a citation. Copies of both are sent, along with an affidavit signed by the volunteers, to Kennewick’s city attorney, who co-signs the affidavit and sends it to the violator, who can pay the fine or contest it.

“But it’s foolish to contest it,” says Call, “because the evidence is on record.” The CHIPs program filed 200 parking citations in 2007, providing a total of 12,350 hours of volunteer time with an estimated value of over $230,000.

The Disabled Parking Enforcement Volunteers of Austin, Texas, have a similarly successful track record, although their methods are simpler compared to the CHIPs program in Washington.

“We don’t take photos,” says Nancy Crowther, who has muscular dystrophy and is one of the program’s founding members. “We just take down all the information that’s pertinent to the violation and turn it over to the police, who issue the citations.”

Crowther reports that one of Austin’s municipal court judges is so pleased with the program that she created a “Wall of Shame” in the municipal courthouse, displaying all of the disabled parking permits that were confiscated as a result of volunteer enforcement. Revenues generated by parking citations go directly into Austin’s ADA fund, which provides accessible library equipment and other ADA-related needs in the city.

A major factor in the success of volunteer enforcement programs is providing enough ADA-related training so volunteers can ensure that parking violators are, in fact, breaking the law. In most communities, the presence of a permit gets you off the hook, and volunteers focus on the most obvious abusers. But the issue of so-called “invisible” or not-readily-apparent disabilities is a sticky one, and both police and volunteers alike are legally restricted from challenging suspected violators about the nature of their disability. You can’t ask, and they don’t have to tell. But the “play nice” approach allows a lot of violators to fall through the cracks.

Going Too Far?
At least one website has been created as a globally visible “wall of shame” against parking violators, but one visit to HandicappedFraud.Org reveals a shocking lack of awareness or foresight in tackling the complexities of the disabled parking crisis. While it may be effective as a shaming tool against parking violators, this well-intentioned but poorly-executed website has drawn heavy criticism from disability activists, not only for its politically incorrect name, but for promising what it simply cannot deliver under current rules and regulations.

Visitors to the website can post detailed reports with uploaded photos of parking violators across the nation. “HandicappedFraud.Org” merchandise, such as branded T-shirts and coffee mugs can be purchased at the site, and free supplies of post-it notes can be ordered (“You Have been Reported to HandicappedFraud.Org”) to stick on parking violators’ cars.

The website is one of several for-profit sites owned and operated by Maureen Birdsall of Birdsall Interactive in Lafayette, Calif. According to Birdsall, the website’s fraud reports are compiled monthly, by state, and sent to the Departments of Motor Vehicles in all 50 states. Apparently, Birdsall (who says the website’s name will possibly be changed to DisabilityFraud.Org) failed to consider the fact that not one single DMV in the U.S. is equipped to process the reports, issue fines, or pursue violators in any way whatsoever.

Websites can evolve and improve with time, but HandicappedFraud.Org is presently little more than a worldwide bulletin board for parking-fraud exposure. Birdsall claims to be receiving favorable feedback from city and state governments across the country. However, her website fails to promote any practical solutions to the disabled parking crisis.

“That website is worthless,” says Fred Shotz, who tried, with little success, to alert Birdsall to the misleading promises of her website. “She seems to think she’s accomplishing something by reporting parking violators to agencies that have no jurisdictional authority. She needs to be more candid on her website about the ultimate goal, which is not simply to report violators but to establish a system in which action can be taken. If legislators will support the cause of enforcement, a website like this could be very valuable. For now, the website can’t do what it claims because it’s not in a position to do it yet.”

To be fair, HandicappedFraud.Org shines a bright, glaring spotlight on the disabled parking crisis, luring an increasing number of bloggers and journalists who then draw attention to the complicated issues involved.

It’s only a matter of time before the crisis boils over, at which point the need for sweeping change will be utterly unavoidable.


Experts and Activists on the Disabled Parking Crisis

“It all starts with doctors being too lenient with signing permit applications.” — David Allgood, C5 quad, Louisville, Ky.

“If you don’t have a mobility impairment, you shouldn’t get a permit. The deaf don’t see themselves as disabled, so they shouldn’t qualify.” — Larry Henderson, unspecified disability, Claymont, Dela.

“Parking placards should have shorter-term expiration dates. I write letters to inform people (violators) of the issues involved. Currently we have no official efforts to address the problem.” — Paige Shaw, mother of a disabled 12-year-old son, Virginia Beach, Va.

“Our volunteer enforcement group is trained to avoid confrontation.” — Kris Call, volunteer parking enforcer, Kennewick, Wash.

“When you drive a lift- or ramp-equipped van, the problem is much, much worse, and none of the ADA guidelines address the issue of diagonal or back-in parking. Most people don’t know that every state is free to add more disabled parking spaces, as long as the number is greater than what the ADA requires.” — Wayne Yarnall, owner of ADA Build-it-Right, Vancouver, Wash.

“It takes litigation in California to get anything done. Parking in Sacramento is so expensive that everyone’s getting a placard to avoid paying for parking. And it’s amazing to see how many elderly people use disabled parking at shopping malls, where they walk for miles to get their daily exercise.” — Ed Kemper, disabled ADA expert, Folsom, Calif.

“If we can inform the public that states are issuing more and more permits without increasing the number of disabled parking spaces, that would be a good first step. I wouldn’t be opposed to federal enforcement of the ADA.” — Rick Frame, C3-4 quad, registered accessibility specialist and owner of AccessTX.org, Austin, Texas.

“There’s no financial incentive for police to enforce disabled parking if the fines are too small.” — Don Brandon, paraplegic and director, ADA Technical Assistance Center, Mountlake Terrace, Wash.

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