It's finals week, and the library is crammed with students getting ready for their exams. Laila, a high school junior, is part of the crowd. After midday Christmas service rehearsals, she parks her car in a parking spot reserved for people with disabilities, leaves her assigned placard displayed properly on the dashboard, and rushes into the library for an afternoon of studying and meeting with her math tutor.
Somebody sees her when she parks her car and walks in to the building. Laila looks fine to the observer, so the observer calls the police to notify them of an alleged parking violation. While Laila is in the library, a police officer issues a ticket with a $250 fine for parking improperly in a space for disabled. The ticket was issued in spite of Laila's properly displayed permanent disability parking placard.
Laila comes out of the library after several hours of productive study, sees the ticket and is devastated. Why was the ticket issued when she was authorized to park in the spot? Why did someone call the police to get them to issue the ticket? Why does she have to deal with this in the midst of the crunch to get ready for finals?
Fortunately, Laila knows a good lawyer who is busy making her dinner at home (that's me!). First, we get control of her immediate situation by writing a letter to the village administrative adjudicator explaining what happened, why it should not have happened, and requesting the ticket be dismissed (we will personally deliver it before school on Monday). Second, we determine that it was possible that the police officer did not see the placard as it was on the dashboard on the passenger's side, and we agree that in the future that she will always hang her placard on the rear view mirror. Thirdly, we mourn the hubris of strangers who pass judgement on her right to use parking spots reserved for people with disabilities like her, and also that a police officer would issue a ticket in error when Laila has done nothing wrong.
My beautiful daughter lives with several disabling conditions that are not visible to the untrained eye. She works hard to overcome her disabilities through the use of therapeutic practices and medication, successfully participating in school and community activities on most days. By using accommodations like reserved parking for people with disabilities, she generally maintains a level of functioning that keeps her in school, in choir, and out in the community. However, even using all available accommodations, she struggles to function like a "normal" person. Whenever possible, she chooses to address her disabling conditions in the privacy of her own home, where it might be a little more obvious that she really isn't "fine."
Laila is not alone. According to 2006 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12.6% of American adults live with a mobility impairment. That's over 3 million American adults; over 750,000 adult New Yorkers; over 250,000 adult Chicagoans; and over 3000 Barrington area adult residents (calculated based on 2016 Census geographic population data and 2016 Census age demographic data). If all people with mobility impairments used canes, walkers and wheelchairs, we would see a lot more people using these devices in public. But a great many people with mobility impairments do not use these devices, rendering their impairments invisible to the general public. They are the experts in determining whether they should use an assistive device like a wheelchair or an accommodation like a parking spot reserved for use by people with disabilities.
When you see a "normal looking" person who parks their car in a designated spot for people with disability, please refrain from interfering. Many people have conditions that you cannot see, and some even appear "too young" to need such an accommodation. Particularly when a person has properly displayed a parking placard, you should accept that they have have gone through the rigorous process of providing the proper medical verification to the state and that they are authorized to use the parking spot.
If you're wondering "what harm is there if you call in the police to issue a citation?" the answer is "quite a lot." For my 16 year old who has worked hard to function as an independent high school student, receiving the ticket confirmed her fears that she needs to be able to defend herself from random adults who don't believe that she lives with disabling medical conditions. It reinforced her fear that the world doesn't seem to think she has a right to live her life as independently as she can. It distracted her from the important work of preparing for finals. It forced her to engage her mom (and her lawyer) to properly contest the ticket. If her mom had not been her lawyer, it could have forced her to find a way to pay the $250 fine.
It is my prayer that this post helps encourage us treat one another with more respect. That we allow people with disabilities to use the parking accommodations that help them live their lives. That we trust one another to use the accommodations that we need, and that we understand that we do great harm when we challenge a person's right to use an accommodation. My daughter wants to get her education, get a good job, and make a positive difference in the world. All she needs is to have a chance to participate, free of harassment from her right to use accommodations that help her fulfill these goals.
Mari Franklin is a counselor at law who specializes in helping students secure accommodations at school.