Doable: Handicapped parking abuse riles readers

Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/28/04

You're already late and the parking lot is packed, except for a desert of "handicapped" spaces lining the front of the building. You pull into the blue zone and park next to a van, leaving tons of empty handicapped spaces on the other side. Who could that hurt?

Very possibly, the occupants of the van.

Two weeks ago in the Doable column, a Holmdel woman who drives a conversion van with a wheelchair lift noted many handicapped parking spaces aren't wide enough to enable her partially paralyzed daughter to exit their vehicle. Amid a flurry of responses to that column was one from a woman reporting another hazard: returning to the vehicle.

"What is even more of a problem is when I have found a handicapped spot to park in and then I come out and find some little sedan with a handicapped placard dangling from the rearview mirror has pulled into the grid lines included in my spot," said Catherine Beahan, who uses a side-lift van for her 32-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy.

"Now, I have to wait for the owner to come 'walking' out, usually with a spouse, to move their car. Or, I leave my daughter, helpless in her wheelchair, out in the line of traffic while I back the van out."

The two-sizes-fit-all handicapped parking system, in which some of the designated spots are 3 feet wider than the rest, appears to be inadvertently pitting wheelchair users against walkers in the scramble for accessible parking. Some users of the spaces say the state should designate which spots are van accessible and reserve the roomier spaces for those who need them.

But who needs them may require further definition: "People like me may at times use a wheelchair, at times a walker, depending how the day is,"said Carolyn Schwebel, Middletown. "Without an access aisle with enough space, it is very hard for me to get out of the car and on my feet to use the walker-rollator. I, and most people with disabilities, will, as a courtesy, leave the van-accessible spot for someone who needs it more, unless it is the only one available."

Some readers with disabilities suggested immediate solutions, such as carrying orange cones in the van to mark off the adjoining access lane.

Others are seeking an overhaul of the handicapped parking system.

"The criteria for eligibility must be changed and physicians must be made aware that the indiscriminate rubber-stamping of a patient's request for preferred parking is not to be tolerated," said Phil Charrow, Lakewood, in a letter to his assemblyman. "There is nothing more infuriating than seeing a driver pull into a designated spot, display a handicapped parking permit and then remove his golf clubs from his trunk and proceed to walk the 18 holes."

"Being old does not automatically make one handicapped," said Louis R. Miceli, Red Bank, who was an Eatontown police officer in charge of enforcement of traffic and parking laws before he became paraplegic seven years ago. "Legislation also should address temporary and permanent. This shouldn't be a lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card. Maybe even permanent should be limited to mean a 'max' of five years."

Many also called for eliminating the "inheritance" of placards from deceased relatives.

And all would like to see a focus on enforcement "to keep able-bodied or disabled people from violating the spaces by parking in them without permits, or from parking blatantly in the striped access aisles (even at hospitals)," said Schwebel, co-chairwoman of the Middletown-based disabilities activist group The Equalizers. The group is currently filing more than 30 federal suits against local businesses.

A little logic might help, too, said one caller who witnessed drivers attempting to convince police they weren't "technically" in violation because their vehicles were sitting in the striped access aisle, not in the adjoining handicapped 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.