Doable: Handicapped parking becomes a quandary

Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/14/04

"Sometimes, I get so frustrated myself, and I'm not even the one in the wheelchair."

Catherine Colby, Hazlet, is usually the person behind the wheelchair, attempting to maneuver it and her partially paralyzed daughter into stores and doctors' offices.

"My problem is the handicapped parking."

She said some of the designated spaces provide ample room for a wheelchair lift while others, with little extra space, are to be used by people who are disabled, but still able to walk. Since Colby drives a conversion van with a wheelchair lift, she needs the extra-large spaces, but those are often taken up by the walkers.

"Not that I blame them," she says. "They have the right" to the spaces. Meanwhile, she doesn't have enough room in the smaller spaces to bring her daughter and wheelchair out of the car.

Under the New Jersey Barrier Free Subcode and the Americans with Disabilities Act, handicapped parking spaces must be at least 8 feet wide, with another 5 feet available in the adjacent striped access aisles. Van-accessible spaces require a minimum width of 8 feet plus 8 feet in the access aisles.

"This has been a major problem for us for years," Colby said. "Even at my daughter's pediatrician office, there isn't a handicapped space for a wheelchair lift, yet the area is filled with all kinds of doctors offices. I have to park farther away and take up two spots in order to lower the wheelchair lift. This can be tough in general and especially when the weather is bad."

Rachel Colby, 11, was born with multiple disabilities that have required 23 surgeries to date. Her mom said nerve damage during one brain operation at the age of 8 months left the youngster paralyzed on one side. "She's been in a wheelchair since she was old enough to sit up."

Colby is concerned her daughter might be hindered by inaccessible facilities when she gets older and wants to venture out on her own.

"The parking is bad, getting into establishments is hard; she'll never be able to open half the doors because they're so hard to pull and most of the stores, doctors offices and restaurants are so tightly packed that we just don't fit with the wheelchair.

"I'm not a pessimistic person. I don't want to be for my daughter's sake, but it is very difficult. Being in this type of situation, whether it's yourself or a loved one, makes you feel very isolated at times."

Colby said she would like to see statewide changes in the allocation of handicapped parking spaces, such as setting aside the larger spaces for wheelchair users only. She plans to contact and seek support for the idea from state disability agencies and organizations.

"This would also require perhaps a change in the signs for handicapped spaces and maybe even a change in the handicapped placards and license plates. It might seem like a lot of work, however, it would make life a lot easier for those people who cannot walk at all and allow them more freedom to go out and not feel shut in because of a parking space."

Linda Walls is a parent and grandparent of people with disabilities ranging from deafness and Tourette's syndrome to cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Her column appears in Wednesday's Jersey life Accent on Food section. Write to her at the Asbury Park Press, 3601 Highway 66, Neptune, NJ 07754, or e-mail or call her at (732) 449-0696.