The Challenges With Disabled Parking
One of the most coveted, but also controversial, aspects of being disabled is the ability to park in disabled (or as the larger public refers to them, "handicapped") parking spots. Here in my home state of California we have two factors impacting the availability for disabled people to park in disabled parking spots: 1) increased population density and 2) a generation of people who are simply aging (and thus acquiring disabling conditions, many times requiring the use of disabled parking). There is a third factor, that of the increased diagnosing of "invisible disabilities," a topic I will explore in this post.
Attitudes about disability
I got my driver's license as soon as I could. I took the driver's training course the minute I turned 16, and got my license as soon as my car was finished being adapted the following year. I couldn't wait to be able to drive and have that level of independence. I also had no hesitation about applying for, and using a disabled parking placard (or "hang-tag").
Even though at that age, my evolutionary journey of disability identity had just begun, I have always had a pretty high sense of self-love. I say "love" and not "esteem" because in truth in those awkward teenage years, I had levels of insecurity as many teens do. But, down deep I did, and still do, have a great sense of pride and acceptance of myself.
Additionally, I am very practical. Because of my disability, I have a hard time walking long distances. And with, or without the use of a mobility device, being able to park closer to an establishment is better for my body, my health, and my safety. A hang-tag is just as much a tool for my independence as the car itself.
But I know not everyone feels the same way about being disabled and using disabled parking. Just the other day I was at my neurology clinic appointment and a physical therapist who I was meeting for the first time asked as part of her assessment if I needed a disabled parking permit.
"What?" I replied. With a tone of humor and jest I asked, "What good self-respecting disabled person wouldn't want to have a disabled parking permit?"
"Oh you'd be surprised," she replied. "I just had a patient the other day whose disability clearly qualified them for one, and they said they didn't need it. That explained they weren't 'disabled enough' to need one."
Oye. I get it. Like I said above, the disability identity journey can sometimes be a long and winding rode for people. I have no judgement. It just still makes me kind of sad because I wish they embraced disability as much as I do. Not just for themselves, but what their self-acceptance means for our entire community as a whole. I know they don't realize it, but rejecting the use of a disabled parking permit is subtly reinforcing negative stereotypes about disabled people. A permit is just a tool for their independence, and not a symbol of disability that should be stigmatized.
A Few Words About Disability Parking etiquette
I'm sure this goes without saying, but because I've witnessed illegal parking by people who aren't disabled many times during my two-decades of driving, I must repeat: IF YOU ARE NOT DISABLED PLEASE DO NOT PARK IN DISABLED PARKING SPOTS. (Sorry if the all caps is annoying, but I felt it necessary). Please note my specificity. I didn't say "Don't park if you don't have a permit." (Although that too. You will get ticketed without showing a hang-tag or DP plates.) I said "Don't park if you are not disabled."
And here's why: there are many family members or close friends of disabled persons who have died, or moved, or are no longer able to use their permit, who are continuing to use that person's permit for themselves. This problem was largely acerbated by California's lax recertification and monitoring policies. Up until recently, every two years, without asking for a physician's note, the state sends me and my husband our new hang-tags. Period. No forms. No questions. No nothing. That has led to a saturation of hang-tags being used by people who really do not need them. (Thankfully, having acknowledged this large problem, California just passed legislation requiring recertification every six years.)
And then there are those people who simply park in disabled spots blatantly illegally, with the hope they won't get caught. I've made a YouTube video about an experience my husband and I had at Whole Foods once. You can watch it here. I also confronted a man once who, as I am getting out of my car, attempts to park his truck illegally in the spot next to mine. The exchange went like this:
Me: "Excuse me sir, are you aware this is a disabled parking spot."
Me: "So unless you are disabled you can't park here."
Him: "What, are you the cops or something?"
Me: "Me, ummm, no, but you still can't park here."
Him: "Look lady, you look like you have a hard enough life so I'll move my truck."
Me: "Thank you."
And if you think i waited to make sure he really moved to another spot, YES, yes I did.
Obviously, he was being an assholish ableist. But the fact remains that the ability for disabled people to park in disabled parking is not a small or insignificant matter. Those spots are a main staple of us being able to live our lives with full and equal participation in life and society. They should not be belittled to be a indulgent convenience simply so we can get into an establishment more quickly. Because let me tell you, particularly with ramp vans that require extra space, finding a disabled parking spot these days is anything but quick. Having no where to park is a major obstacle to our independence and equal access. And every single spot that the law provides us needs to remain available for legitimately disabled people.
Which leads me to the final topic I want to address: people with invisible or "hidden" disabilities. As disability itself is becoming more socially accepted, and the medical diagnosis, understanding, and treatment of a wider variety of non-visible disabilities occurs, more and more people who don't "look" disabled, will be granted legal permits to park in disabled parking spots. There are a plethora of emotional, psychological, orthopedic, cardiovascular, pulmonary conditions which might make it difficult for a person to park further away from an establishment, and therefor require the use of a parking permit.
I've had to remind myself of this fact. Just the other day I was parking at Stanford Healthcare (where parking is always in short supply, disabled spots or not) and this woman in the car next to me seemingly effortlessly got out of her car, was rearranging things in her trunk, seeming to move about fine. She walked to the elevator along side me without an apparent struggle. I thought to myself, "hmm, I wonder if she is really disabled. I wonder if that is really her hang-tag." But even as I had those thoughts, I knew I was wrong to do so. How do I know she doesn't have a chronic knee problem? Or a heart condition? or something else.
I don't know. And I don't need to know. I have to trust that the system is working and that she is being truthful in her need for the disabled parking spot. I must grant her the same acceptance for her right to equal access and independence as I seek for myself. I need to believe she isn't "faking," taking advantage and abusing the system by using a hang-tag that isn't hers. As we exchanged pleasantries in the elevator I came to believe that to be the case. That she is someone who really needs that parking spot, just as much as I need mine.
I will always advocate for continued advocacy and vigilance in the struggle for equal access under the law, parking being just one area of focus. The challenges I have addressed are just those that have affected me personally. I am sure there are more that impact the greater disabled community as a whole. That is why we must remain diligent in confronting illegal parkers. I know I sure will. And I hope you will too.