An essential tenant in the Americans with Disabilities Act is to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in transportation – which ties back to almost every other protection. Without transportation, people with disabilities can’t work, find appropriate housing or integrate fully into society.
Every day, thousands of people with disabilities are denied the right of transportation because the parking spaces built and reserved for them are being used by able-bodied people using parking placards intended for those with disabilities to save a few bucks.
“This is a significant issue for our members,” said Mark Perriello, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “When people are out shopping or dining, they need these spots. When they can’t find them, it leaves people with disabilities out on the sidelines.”
But many drivers ignore the moral issue and the risk of an expensive ticket for the opportunity to score prime parking spaces for no cost. About two-dozen states have laws that allow people with placards to park for free at metered spaces, and the majority of them have no time limit, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research. The report concludes that these states’ nonpayment privileges invite fraud and abuse.
Michael Manville, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University who co-authored the study, said that while it’s “vitally important” to issue placards to people with disabilities so they can park in designated spaces near ramps and doorways, they shouldn’t be allowed to park anywhere for as long as they like for free.
“If it wasn’t free, there’d be no incentive at all for someone without a legitimate disability to have a placard,” he said. “If you’re in downtown Los Angeles, downtown Chicago, downtown Seattle, this carries a lot of value.”
In addition to creating a strong financial incentive for fraud, free and unlimited parking creates hardships for merchants, who complain that there is no shopper turnover when people improperly park in front of the same store all day. And cities say they’re losing revenue – in Chicago, for example, the city agreed last year to pay a private company that leases its meters $54.9 million to make up for revenue it said it lost because of people using the placards to park for free. This included both drivers with disabilities and those who violated the privileges.
Baltimore, which previously allowed people with disability placards to park for free in the central business district, changed its rules in July. The city retrofitted most of the meters so people with disabilities could use them, and reserved 200 spots for those with disabilities. But it also started requiring everyone to pay the $2-an-hour meter fee, whether they have a disability or not.
Tiffany James, spokesperson for the Baltimore City Parking Authority, said that the city acted because of a massive amount of placard fraud. “Lots of blocks in this area had 60 to 70 percent of the cars with disability placards,” James said. “The higher the off-street parking lot rate, the higher the meter rate, the more valuable the placards became.”
“I took a video before we launched. Every single car in a particular block had a disability placard,” James said. “After we launched, not a single one did.”
On the other hand, Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, cautions that states and cities that eliminate free parking may be violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by preventing access.
Buckland, who has a spinal cord injury and uses a power wheelchair, said that he and many people with disabilities aren’t able to use meters because they can’t operate them with a closed fist or the meter is located in a place that is inaccessible for a wheelchair.
He said that last year he got a ticket in Arlington, Va., which charges people with disabilities for parking, because he couldn’t feed the meter. He went to court and the ticket was dismissed.
“If you’re going to charge people, you need to make darn sure that you’re providing the same level of access that everybody else has, and we don’t feel that these cities are meeting that test,” Buckland said.
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