I had always been nonconforming (to say the least). Anyone who knew me would agree that I could always find logical reasons for why a rule was meant to be broken. “It’s not hurting anyone”, I would say. I was raised in a stable household with parents, grandparents, and other family members who were upstanding citizens that had never even gotten a parking ticket, so it’s hard to comprehend where I got my notion on rule breaking. Of course, as I’ve gotten older, life experiences have changed my views.
Back when I was in college, a close family member was diagnosed with a terminal illness whose symptoms required the use of a wheelchair. Since I would be the person transporting this family member to and from the doctor, an acquaintance suggested that I should obtain a handicapped parking permit. The importance of having this permit was immediately obvious, as the illness prevented my family member from being able to do anything without assistance. With hospital and doctor visits happening frequently, and getting in and out of a car being such a strenuous task, it was so much easier to arrive on time for appointments with a designated place to park that was close to the entrance and had room to maneuver the wheelchair. Without the permit, I’d have to hold up traffic at the entrance of an establishment while I helped him out, and then I’d have to leave him alone at the entrance while I went to go find parking.
So, I found the handicapped permit to be a great convenience. I could now easily rush into the pharmacy to get his medication, or run into the grocery store to get his groceries. But that’s not where the convenience ended. Everywhere I went, I found myself parking in the handicap spot. I could now quickly run into the mall and pick out a shirt to wear that evening. I could now get to the concert venue and park near the entrance without waiting in long parking lines. I could now go to that popular late night spot that I usually avoided due to the pain of parking. And best of all, everywhere I went, my new car would stay free of door dings and scratches.
Parking in the handicapped spot just became “the norm”. It wasn’t even a question. In fact, if I ever left the house and forgot the permit, I would go back and get it. Soon enough, some of my friends would say, “Let’s go in your car, you have the permit”. Of course, some frowned at it, but I always thought that someone who really needed it would do what I had done; drop off the person in a wheelchair by the entrance and go find another spot. After all, most of the people I saw parked in a handicap spot were either stepping out or stepping in to the drivers seat. I rarely saw anyone rolling out on a ramp in a wheelchair.
After some time had passed, and sadly so had my family member, the permit was still valid and I would sometimes use it to drive around my elderly grandparents. So, before it expired, I made sure to renew it so that I could continue using it for them, and myself of course.
I continued to be able to park at the front of the stadium for Sunday’s football game, or park right next to the elevator in the parking garage, and in some parts of town, handicap vehicles wouldn’t even have to pay for parking! It was great, and it became as essential to me as having a cell phone; I would never leave home without it.
Eventually, the permit expired, and as some more years passed, I got older and some body pains ensued. Getting up in the morning required some warming up to really get going, and although I could jog 5 miles a day, I really felt the pain afterwards. I thought to myself, “It sure would be great to have that handicap permit again”. Then, at a doctor’s visit, my doctor said, “No worries, if you’re in pain, you need it”. Wow! That was easy. Back in business.
It had been a while since I’d had the permit, and it seemed that now there were more assigned handicap spaces than before, but it also seemed like there were more permits as well. For example, most stadiums had dozens of handicap spaces, but it was common to arrive to an entertainment or sporting event and find the spots filled with luxury vehicles and massive SUVs spilling out normally walking individuals.
By being able to persuade a doctor to authorize my permit, as well as not having to worry about receiving a parking infraction, I somehow felt entitled and saw no reason to stop, especially if “everyone else was doing it”. I once watched a guy park in one of “my” spaces with a lifted truck, and as he jumped out and slammed the door behind him, I actually rolled down the window and asked, “why are you taking that spot if you’re walking fine?” He flipped me off and walked away. I thought about calling the cops, but then I thought maybe they’d come and see me getting into my own car without much difficulty.
By now I knew where all the handicap spaces were at all my local establishments. I was always careful to quickly get in and out, and not get noticed seeming “normal”. Sometimes I even added a little more limp to my walk. On one occasion, an elderly lady with a handicap permit on her windshield, watched me take the last available space she was seeking. I hadn’t noticed her until I had already gotten out of the car on my way into the store. I noticed her staring at me, but I was too ashamed to turn back. I figured she would find another handicapped spot, but when I came out of the store about 20 minutes later, she was parked directly in front of me in a regular parking spot. All the other handicap spaces were still taken. She pulled around behind me as I left to take the space I was parked in so she could exit her vehicle.
Fast forward to a few years later, and I meet the first person in a wheelchair that I become close with, and I experience their daily life first hand. I learn everything up close and personal; their struggles, their difficulties, the things that most of us take for granted.
Most of the things I do as an able body person takes them five times longer to do. Getting in and out of a car is one of those things. Finding a handicapped parking space for their accessible vehicle is another. It takes five times longer to open an accessible ramp than to open a car door. It takes five times longer to transfer from their chair to the car seat and get in position to drive. Gassing up their vehicle will take longer, and if they have to find a place that provides full service, that will take even longer. Once they reach their destination, they can’t just park anywhere, because their access ramp cannot open in a regular parking spot. Their only option is the handicap space with the access aisle. To make matters worse, several times I have witnessed upon returning to their vehicle, that someone has parked on the access aisle, making it impossible to use the ramp. We’ve had to actually leave and come back later, hoping for the car to have left.
I’ve seen police cruisers, taxis, and delivery drivers all use handicap spaces because “it was only for five minutes”. I once witnessed a young woman leaving a bar at midnight who justified parking in a handicapped space because she had “recently had a baby”. I’ve witnessed an entire family with one elderly person walking normally park in a handicapped space. I could understand if that elderly person had driven themselves there alone, but that family could have dropped the elderly person off at the entrance and avoided taking that parking space from someone who did not have that choice. Someone with a disability that affords them the opportunity to walk a further distance, even if it causes some discomfort, should consider that they have such an opportunity, where someone in a wheelchair does not.
A person in a wheelchair may have issues that afford them less time to reach a restroom. Perhaps there’s a rainstorm, and they cannot hold an umbrella and push their wheelchair simultaneously. They can’t simply choose any path to get there, they must follow the accessible path. Whether it’s a grocery store, a restaurant, or an office building, every aspect from beginning to end will take longer. They may need to reach items too low or too high, they’ll need to navigate around obstacles, and they’ll always be unsure if bathrooms or public spaces will be accessible.
I have since gotten rid of my handicap permit, and now that I understand the importance of the issue, I could not fathom taking that space from someone in true need. So, my point is, if you park in a handicapped parking space when your circumstance allows you to use a regular parking space, you may very well be denying someone who has no other option.