What Everyone Should Know About Disabled Parking Spots
Answers to Common Questions and Concerns About Disabled Parking Spaces
If you aren't disabled, you may not have given much thought to the blue specially marked spaces you see in most parking lots. Or perhaps you have wondered why there are so many of them or why the folks getting out of the cars parked in those spaces don't always "look" disabled. Maybe you've looked at an empty disabled parking spot on a rainy day and wished you could park there.
If you've ever wondered about disabled parking spaces, I hope this page can answer some common questions and concerns.
(Photos by Lisa Howard)
Why Am I Writing This?
And why do I care about disabled parking?
I drive a wheelchair van. Fortunately, it's not for me. I am lucky to be able-bodied, but my partner is disabled due to a car accident. She was on the freeway when traffic suddenly stopped in front of her. Unfortunately, the car behind her didn't stop. She was hit from behind by a pickup truck that forced her car into the back end of another truck. The fire department had to use the Jaws of Life to get her out, and she suffered three broken vertebrae in the accident. After surgery, she was in a half-body cast for several months. She lost everything - her car, her job and eventually her life savings because the insurance company hurried her to settle just a few months after the accident and before she really knew the full extent (and cost) of her injuries. She was young and trusting, thinking everything would get better. It didn't.
She was able to walk for a long time, but never for any distance, and always with pain. The original injury has gotten worse over the years, as scar tissue from several surgeries has formed, the vertebrae have degenerated where the doctors have removed discs, and the nerves in her leg have been impinged to the point that she can no longer feel one leg or walk on it. She started using a scooter as her condition got worse, and then finally ended up in a wheelchair.
So we now drive a very "sexy" (haha!) Braun wheelchair van. I'm sure wheelchair vans are right up there with Porsches and Corvettes as top vehicles everyone dreams of owning, right? But we are actually very thankful for our van. It has an automatic ramp that lowers so my partner can drive in and out of the van easily. After years of having an outside rack on our van to carry the scooter she used before getting the wheelchair, I am very grateful for the ease of our van. Believe me, I stay much, much drier in a downpour!
So now that you know my story, here are some common questions and answers about disabled parking spots. (Note: This information applies only to the United States. Laws will vary in other countries.)
Why Are There So Many Disabled Parking Spaces?
And how come they aren't full?
The minimum number of accessible parking spots is set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and is based on the size of the lot. The larger the lot, the more spaces are required.
However, the ratio is not consistent. For instance, in a lot with 25 or fewer total parking spots, there must be one disabled parking space, and it must be van accessible (more about that later). In a lot with 301-400 spaces, there must be eight disabled parking spaces, but only one of those is required to be van accessible. In a lot with more than 500 spots, 2% of them must be accessible and one in every eight of those must be van accessible.
These are the minimum federal requirements. State and local jurisdictions may implement stricter guidelines.
When you go to your local Costco or Walmart and see an entire row of disabled parking spaces that are empty, you may be wondering why there are so many. But look around you. Are there also plenty of empty regular parking spots? During slow times, disabled spots are usually empty. But during busy times of the day, week or year, the disabled parking spaces will fill up, just as the other spots will.
I rarely can find a van accessible parking spot at our local Costco at any time of day at any time of the year, and during the holidays, I frequently cannot find an empty disabled parking space (much less a van accessible one) at our local shopping mall, toy store or any popular store where people are doing holiday shopping. So if you always thought the right to park in a disabled spot meant you could just whip into a parking lot, get a close spot and zip into the store, think again!
A parking area with 301-400 total spaces must have the same number of van accessible disabled parking spots as a lot with 25 spaces - only one.
What if I See a Healthy-Looking Person Using an Accessible Parking Space? - Do you think this man really needs a mobility scooter?
I have seen plenty of "perfectly healthy-looking" people using disabled parking spots, and I don't judge them. Why? Because you can't always see someone's disability. You can qualify for a disability placard due to a variety of mobility issues, as well as disabilities such as heart or lung conditions that make it difficult to walk without getting winded.
When my partner was in her early 30s, she used to get a lot of dirty looks when using disabled parking because people just saw a fairly young woman who was walking. They didn't know that every step was difficult and walking from the car to the store was about the limit of her walking ability.
What do you think of the photo above? Does the man look like he needs a mobility scooter?
I took this photo of our very good friend Devin when we took a trip to Disneyland together. When I took this photo, Dev was standing up on his mobility scooter, letting the kids ride on it and acting like a clown. I'm sure many people saw him that day and thought he was one of those folks who pretend to be disabled just so they can go through the shorter disabled queues at Disneyland. They would be wrong. Dev was injured when a full forklift bucket with several hundred pounds of weight fell on him, leaving him with severe back and neck injuries. He walks with a limp, can't walk far or lift much, has chronic pain, and pays dearly every time he exerts himself like he was doing when I took this photo.
By the end of that day at Disneyland, Dev was really hurting. He knew he would be, but he wanted his son to have fun. People who saw him goofing around in the beginning of the day never saw the pain on his face later that day or knew the choice he made to help his son have fun at the expense of his personal pain. I bet many people judged him.
Just because someone in a disabled parking spot doesn't "look" like they should be using it, that doesn't mean they're doing anything wrong.
I never use my partner's parking placard when she's not with me, and there are three reasons for this. First, I know there are people who really need those parking spaces. Second, I need the exercise! :-) And third, the DMV could revoke her parking placard if I got caught using it. I'd be the one breaking the rules, but she'd be the one who would pay.
However, if I drop her off somewhere and come back to get her later, I will park in a disabled spot while I go in to find her. In that case, you'd see a perfectly healthy person (me!) hopping out of the car, and you might think I was abusing the system.
So remember, just because someone "looks" healthy, it doesn't mean they shouldn't be in a disabled parking space. If the car has a disabled placard or plate, I assume it is being used responsibly.
However, there certainly are people who park in these spaces who shouldn't. If you see a person who looks able-bodied and they do NOT have a visible placard or plate, feel free to call the local police department and report them. If the person really has a right to park there, they will probably just need to show that proof to the DMV and they won't be fined. (That's the way it works in California, at least.) But if they don't have the right to park there, they will be fined and will probably be discouraged from parking illegally again.
Why Do Some Disabled Parking Signs Say Van Accessible?
Is there a difference?
There is, indeed, a difference between van accessible spaces and regular accessible spaces. The difference is the amount of room next to the parking spot. A regular accessible parking spot must have a 5-foot access aisle (the area with the white diagonal stripes) next to it, while a van accessible spot must have an 8-foot access aisle next to it. The difference allows a wheelchair van to lower a ramp so the wheelchair user can enter and exit the vehicle.
Finding a van accessible spots isn't always easy. As noted above, federal law only requires one van accessible parking space for every eight accessible spaces, and these spaces are not for vans only. Anyone with a disabled placard or license plate can park in these spots.
I frequently can't find a van accessible spot at all when we go shopping, even during the middle of the week when it's not the holidays. As a result, you will often find our van parked at the very far end of the parking lot even when the lot is half-full. That's because I need to be sure no one is going to park next to us while we're in the store, or else I will have to move the van again before I can put down the wheelchair ramp. The only way to ensure this won't happen is usually to go to the very end of the lot.
It's really not a big deal most days, as I can walk just fine and it's not a problem for my partner to go the extra distance in her wheelchair. The only time it's really a pain is on rainy days, when I find myself wishing we could use the disabled parking spots up front or at least park somewhere closer. Having the right to use disabled parking spots doesn't mean you can always find one!
Is it OK to Park in the White Striped Lines Next to a Disabled Spot?
How about parking my shopping cart there?
I think there's a common misconception that it's ok to park in the white lines next to a disabled parking spot. In fact, it can create just as many problems for a disabled person. The striped area has two purposes. First, it allows room for someone to maneuver a wheelchair, scooter, or walker next to the vehicle and transfer out of the vehicle. Second, it provides an accessible path from the parking area to the store.
In the last year, we had two instances where we had to wait for a driver to come move their vehicle out of the striped zone so my partner could maneuver her wheelchair. The first time, someone parked in the striped area, apparently not realizing (or not caring??) that the striped zone provided the only ramp up onto the sidewalk in the entire lot. We had no problem parking in the accessible spot they had left empty, but once my partner got out of the van, she couldn't get up on the sidewalk until the driver came out. Fortunately, he had just run into a copy shop and was out quickly.
The second time, we went to a program at our kids' school and parked in a van accessible spot. We left the performance about 15 minutes early and discovered someone had parked in the striped area next to us, thereby making it impossible for us to lower the wheelchair ramp and impossible for my partner to get in the van. It was December and it was cold (although we live in California, so that's a relative term!). If the program hadn't been ending so soon, we would have called the police and had the vehicle towed. Instead, we waited in the cold for the driver to come out. She seemed embarrassed but not remorseful and jumped into her car before we could even finish talking.
As for shopping carts, these often seem to end up in the striped access aisles. Sometimes it is because the people using the disabled spot can't walk the extra distance to put the cart back . In other cases, able-bodied people just think it's a nice big place to leave a cart. If you're in the latter group, please walk the extra distance so your shopping cart isn't blocking the path for someone using a wheelchair, walker or scooter.
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