Few things are more frustrating for wheelchair users and others with physical disabilities than not being able to find an accessible parking space. It’s even more upsetting when we discover that a non-disabled person has parked illegally in one of these spaces that we so desperately need. So, you can imagine my anger when I recently discovered that some of these designated spaces are not legally enforceable in some US communities, and local law enforcement is not ticketing offenders. As such, non-disabled people are frequently parking in these accessible spaces without consequence.
To provide you with some context, on July 13, 2018, I took my kids to the last day of their week-long summer day camp at a local church. The parking area isn’t huge, and there aren’t individual paved spaces; just two rows of grass where cars can park. However, there are four paved accessible parking spaces directly in front of the church, two on either side of the curbed entrance to the church. There is an access aisle between each pair of spaces, and all four have the blue painted wheelchair symbol and a standard DOT metal sign indicating violators will be fined $250 for parking there. Normally the parking lot is empty except for a dozen or so parents (like me) dropping their kids off. I was surprised that on that morning, three of the four accessible spaces were occupied and there were several other cars parked along the edge of the driveways.
After parking in the only available accessible space, I noticed that the other three cars belonged to church volunteers who were doing some landscaping work in front of the spaces. It was clear they had parked there for the convenience of unloading landscaping equipment and supplies. I approached one of the individuals who had parked illegally (or so I thought) and politely asked him (twice) to please not park there. He said, Okay. I returned to my car a few minutes later after dropping my kids off, and no one was moving their cars; they had just gone back to work. I left my space and parked elsewhere so I could call the church and ask them to make sure the cars were moved. No one answered after two phone calls, and I couldn’t leave a voicemail. So I reverted to a last-resort action and called the local sheriff’s office. They assured me they would send a deputy to the church to investigate.
I hadn’t planned to follow up, and felt satisfied that I had done everything I could. That was until I got a Facebook message from the individual I spoke to and asked to move the cars. I won’t go into the long list of excuses and justifications he gave me for parking in those spaces, but he did tell me something very disturbing. He said the sheriff’s deputy did come to the church. However, the deputy told him those marked accessible spaces were “not legally enforceable,” and the only thing the deputy could do was charge the car owners with trespassing if that’s what the church wanted. So in essence, nothing happened, and the car owners were left alone.
I couldn’t understand how local law enforcement couldn’t actually enforce what appeared to be a clear parking violation (and for the record, I am fully aware that churches are exempt from accessibility laws). So I set off on a mission to find some answers. My first stop was the text of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to see what it had to say about accessible parking spaces.
The ADA has requirements for the availability of accessible parking spaces based on the size of the lot. The bigger the parking lot, the more marked spaces it needs to have. Furthermore, one of every six accessible parking spaces, or fraction of six, must be “van-accessible.” For example: A parking lot with 400 total spaces needs eight accessible spaces, and two of those eight spaces must be van-accessible. By these standards, the church in question met the ADA requirements for four accessible spaces (assuming it had space for a total of 76-100 cars in its lot. The ADA also says access aisles must be marked (e.g., painted with hatch marks) to discourage parking in them, and accessible parking spaces must be identified by signs that include the International Symbol of Accessibility. These requirements were all met, and to any observer would indicate that these were legally enforceable accessible parking spaces. Many state and local governments have their own requirements, which may be more specific or more stringent – but not less so.
The ADA requirements didn’t help explain why these spaces wouldn’t be legally enforceable, so I consulted my ADA attorney. I explained the situation, and he replied that he didn’t have an explanation, other than the city or county might have a local ordinance under which local law enforcement operates, and somehow those spaces didn’t conform to the requirements of the ordinance.
My next – and final – stop was the Sheriff’s office. I sent them a message asking why those four accessible parking spaces weren’t enforceable. I haven’t heard back from them yet (and will update this post when I do), but I have a feeling this is what they’re going to tell me.
If local property and business owners don’t follow the requirements for markings and signage under the Department of Transportation’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), then law enforcement agencies can’t write tickets for violations because the spaces are technically non-compliant. In 2013, some residents of Athens, Ohio were getting very frustrated because local law enforcement couldn’t do anything to punish non-disabled people parking in accessible parking spaces. The Athens Disabilities Commission had been on a mission to educate local property owners (including Ohio University) about how many of their handicap parking signs were not up to standards. This, the commission discovered, was because some private property owners had posted signs that did not meet standards set up through the Manual.
The Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said that all city spaces are marked correctly and are enforced. However, “Private property spaces are a different story. though,” he said. “Few businesses have them marked correctly so we don’t do a lot of enforcement on private property.” Pyle said he knows of no requirement for private property owners to mark spaces properly, so his department is not able to compel them to do so. At the time this article was published in 2013, about 90 percent of the accessible parking spots at Ohio University were largely marked incorrectly, rendering them “unenforceable.”
If the police were to cite someone who’s parked in an improperly marked spot, the ticket wouldn’t be enforceable in municipal court. Under the MUTCD, blue-and-white signs are for informational purposes only, so even though many have a $250 fine marked on them, they are not enforceable. My only assumption in my personal situation is that the signage for those four accessible spots at the church is not in compliance with the MUTCD.
It’s bad enough that we have to fight for accessible parking. But now we have no legal recourse for people who park in marked accessible spots because the business or property owner didn’t know or care to bring the signage and other markings into compliance. What I encourage you to do is familiarize yourself with the legal accessible parking signage based on your state of residence, and to help educate business owners about the need to be in compliance. It’s a nightmare that this is one more obstacle we have to face in our battle for equal rights and equal access. However, recognizing and understanding the problem is the first step towards eliminating it.