Disabled find spaces less accessible Parking: As the number of handicapped-parking permits has risen, so has abuse of the system by the able-bodied.

March 31, 1997|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Gaynell Colburn, a paraplegic, spied a rare parking space at White Marsh Mall for her van. But a carload of teen-agers beat her to the space, slapped a handicapped-parking permit in the windshield, and ran -- that's right, ran -- to the mall.

Colburn said it's not an uncommon sight: able-bodied people illegally using such parking permits to get convenient spaces, leaving people like her in the lurch.

It is one of many abuses of a parking program that has become a hodgepodge of ignored rules and unenforced violations, say a growing chorus of advocates for the disabled, politicians and police.

Created two decades ago with good intentions but few safeguards, handicapped- parking permits are fairly easy to get, keep, trade and use fraudulently in Maryland. Abusers face little fear of detection, due to spotty enforcement and weaknesses in the system for issuing and tracking permits.

The time for overhaul has come, critics say.

"They need to revamp the whole system and start again," said Terri Parrish, a wheelchair user and member of the Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities. "The parking situation is out of control."

In the past 10 years, the number of permits has soared a remarkable 600 percent and, some say, so have the opportunities for exploitation. Consider these "loopholes":

To get a permit, an applicant must get a doctor to certify that he or she has a medical condition that "severely" impairs mobility, but the state doesn't verify that information. As a result, no one knows if people are forging doctors' signatures or if doctors are signing permit applications as favors to patients with minor ailments.

The state does not enforce a provision of the law requiring people to resubmit medical proof of a disability when they renew permits every two years. Consequently, people who no longer need a permit can keep it indefinitely. The last time permit holders were forced to provide medical proof for renewals, an estimated 10 percent were dropped from the rolls.

Many police and parking enforcement officers will not question a possible abuser out of fear of offending someone with a hidden disability, such as heart disease. Their sensitivity, however, enables the able-bodied friends and relatives of disabled people to misuse their permits with impunity.

"The abuse is generally committed by a wide variety of people who gain access to the privileges either through a borrowed car or permit," said Sherri Cook, legislative liaison to the Motor Vehicle Administration.

The payoff for abusers is great: close, convenient parking at malls, and free parking at municipal meters. No questions asked.

Left out

The price: people like Colburn are left, sometimes literally, in the cold.

"Lots of times I have to go home or I have to sit around and wait for a space," said Colburn, a Baltimore health consultant who questioned the teen-agers at White Marsh about their permit misuse. "If we could cut down on the abuse, we might have enough spaces."

"A couple of times a week I can't park in an accessible space," said Parrish, 44, of Phoenix, who drives a van equipped with a lift for her wheelchair.

At Towson Town Center recently, Parrish found an open handicapped space, but it was not designated for a van, which requires extra room for the lift. While she was in the parking lot, another woman snagged a special van space that had just become open. That driver was illegally using a handicapped permit that a record check showed belonged to someone else. She declined an interview.

Abuse also angers the able-bodied, particularly those stuck in the distant reaches of a parking lot.

This winter, an apparent vigilante took revenge on an Anne Arundel County man who misused a parking permit issued to his young daughter. Pedro Parraga returned from a quick trip inside a Giant Food in Crofton to find two tires slashed, police said. "He paid a price for it because he walked in there healthy," said his wife. "It was a lesson."

To be sure, Maryland is not unique in its problems with what is officially called "accessible parking." Similar abuses have made news in other states.

Hard to enforce

The landmark federal law -- the Americans with Disabilities Act -- specifies how many accessible parking spaces businesses and government must provide, but it leaves it up to state and local authorities to develop rules for issuing and enforcing parking permits.

"This is the kind of thing that is intrinsically difficult to enforce," said Bob Ashby, a deputy assistant general counsel at the U.S. Department of Transportation. "You don't have folks out there who are in a position to check and see if someone is using their Aunt Sarah's tag."

Permit abusers are not the whole problem. Many people without permits park illegally in handicapped spaces because, they rationalize, they are "only going to be a minute."

But they are easy for police to spot and ticket. Authorities in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore and Baltimore County, for example, issue hundreds of such citations.

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