- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

XENIA, Ohio (AP) — When Maureen Birdsall took her disabled, 92-year-old grandfather to a California hospital, she lost the only available handicapped-parking spot to a woman in a red corvette.

Much to Birdsall’s surprise, the woman didn’t appear to be disabled. “I sat there dumbfounded,” she recalled.

She was not the only one outraged by seemingly healthy people illegally using the handicapped parking spaces. After starting a web site, www.handicappedfraud.org, she received postings from people in 26 states with similar complaints.

The postings come complete with the license plates and handicapped-permit numbers of vehicles suspected of illegally using handicapped spaces. Birdsall sends them to motor vehicle departments.

Her whistle-blower Web site is part of a crackdown by residents, states and towns on the able-bodied who park in spaces labeled for the disabled because they are wider and closest to building entrances.

Xenia increased fines to at least $250 from $40 in the southwest Ohio city. In Texas, Corpus Christi sends out citizen volunteers to ticket offenders.

Waltham, Mass., dedicates police details to do nothing but enforce handicapped-parking laws. The city has spent about $6,000 in grant money for overtime but gotten back about $32,000 in fines.

In most states, people with handicapped placards, plates or stickers can park in designated handicapped spaces and often can park for free at a meter.

But it’s illegal to borrow someone’s placard — a plastic tag that hangs from the rearview mirror — and use it without the person being in the vehicle. It’s also illegal to use the placard of someone who has died or to park in a handicapped space without a permit.

Governments are getting tougher because more placards are in circulation and the public has become more aware of their abuse, said Tim Gilmer, editor of New Mobility, a Horsham, Pa.-based magazine for wheelchair users with active lifestyles.

Disabled people have become more vocal about their needs, said Terry Moakley, a United Spinal Association spokesman.

“People just don’t want to settle for no access or second-rate access,” Moakley said.

Massachusetts is urging its police to crack down after a yearlong investigation culminating in August discovered that nearly one-third of the placards found on cars parked in downtown Boston were being used by people who were not disabled.

“It strikes a nerve with people,” said Ann Dufresne, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. “They are taking spots away from those people who really need it.”

Laura Long, 50, of Chillicothe, Ohio, is not disabled, but occasionally parks in the spaces. She said there usually are a lot of open spots and doesn’t feel that she is taking the space away from a disabled person.

“I’ll do it late at night if I need to pop in somewhere and don’t want to park far away,” she said.

Birdsall’s Web site features complaints about seemingly more egregious violators.

Someone from Burlingame, Calif. wrote: “I could not get close enough to the Chevy Tahoe SUV to get the tag numbers, but should have asked the driver unloading the bags of concrete and other construction supplies from the rear.”

The California motor vehicles department reviews postings that involve suspected fraud where a placard has been counterfeited or the numbers altered, but asked the Web site operators to refer other suspected violations to police.

Mike Marando, department spokesman, said just because people don’t appear to be disabled doesn’t mean they aren’t. Some people with heart conditions or lung disease, for example, have legitimate handicapped permits, he said.

In Corpus Christi, the city plans to double the size of its eight-member citizens parking patrol, which was formed after the city received numerous complaints about violations.

The volunteers drive marked police cruisers and wrote 40 percent of the 876 handicapped no-parking tickets in the first seven months of 2007.

Volunteer Cheryl Daubs, whose 79-year-old mother is disabled, typically puts in four to eight hours a week trolling parking lots, especially trouble spots such as hospitals, movie theaters and shopping malls.

Daubs said her motive is to educate people. She chose for example to void a ticket for a man and warn him instead, hoping it would be the last time he parks in a handicapped spot.

For Phillip Shaw, 62, of Xenia, Ohio, walking long distances is painful because he broke his back in 1980.

He has a sticker that gives him access to handicapped-parking spaces but says there aren’t that many in the city and he sometimes finds them occupied by motorists who don’t appear to be disabled.

“For someone who just uses it for convenience, I think they ought to be fined,” he said.


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