Sidelining those with disabilities

January 30, 2014

A law designed to cut down on the fraudulent use of parking placards for the disabled will end up making life harder for those with disabilities, writes Marilena Marchetti.

IT'S OBVIOUS to Dr. Carrie Sandahl that officials who designed a new law taking away access to parking spots for disabled people have never heard the term "crip time." According to Sandahl:

"Crip time" is the different ways in which people with disabilities experience time. If I'm going to go to class, I am going to have to plan every step of the way to get to my destination to be on time. I've been with friends who are non-disabled, and they will leave 15 minutes before, and I will leave an hour before. "Crip time" can describe always having to anticipate how much distance you will have to cover because you have to budget your stamina and pain tolerance.

Sandahl, an artist and professor in the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has an orthopedic disability that impairs her mobility. Even though she uses crutches on a daily basis and a wheelchair for distances, she no longer qualifies for meter-exempt disability parking--an accommodation she once depended on.

A disabled parking permit issued in Illinois
A disabled parking permit issued in Illinois

As of January 16, Chicago began enforcing a new state law ostensibly aimed at putting an end to what NBC News called "disability parking placard fraud." Before, disabled individuals were able to park for free for unlimited time in metered parking zones by hanging a blue, state-issued handicapped parking placard from their rearview mirror.

To qualify for free parking under the new law, however, it is no longer enough to have a disability. Individuals must have physician certification of an inability to walk 20 feet, full-time use of a wheelchair, or lack of motor control in both hands. Use of the old blue cards will result in fines of up to $65, but they will still be accepted in parking lots.

On its surface, the new law is meant to resolve the problems that people with disabilities face in finding designated parking spaces in highly congested areas. Unfortunately, this will not be the actual effect.

While there is no question that people with disabilities have grossly inadequate access to parking and public transportation, the new law will have zero effect in reversing that. Instead, some warn that it will make matters worse.

OVER THE past year, the City of Chicago conducted sting operations to track disabled placard abuse. The campaign to nab so-called abusers was widely promoted by mainstream news sources, including the local CBS and NBC affiliates and the Sun-Times.

According to the city of Chicago's website, "In 16-18 percent of cases, the City confiscated placards because they weren't being used legally and/or by the individual to which they were issued." But if parking fraud is defined as people using cards that are in someone else's name, how is restricting people from legally obtaining placards going to end that practice?

According to Gary Arnold, speaking on behalf of the disability advocacy and non-profit organization Access Living, "Access Living thinks the law was a necessary step because of the fraud and abuse. There was concern that if the abuse continued, people with disabilities, who are supposed to benefit from disability parking, would end up losing the accommodation all together."

However, considering how manifold issues of transportation access are for those with disabilities, one can't help but come to believe that the real goal of publicly launching a campaign against "disability parking fraud" was done for the ulterior motive of popularizing the idea that individuals are to blame for the social problem of a transportation infrastructure that is inaccessible to, and unable to meet the needs of, those with disabilities--and that could potentially cost millions to correct.

Sandahl doesn't know anyone who uses a disability parking placard who doesn't need it, herself included:

Transportation is one of my biggest challenges. The "L" is not accessible. A lot of places may have an "L" stop, but the destination could be so far away and there may not be an accessible route to it. Bad and dangerous curb cuts, construction and other things make public transportation tricky.

I don't think about that when I drive--I pull up and go in. Clearly, people who made this law don't understand real life and what it's like to have a disability. The criteria are just ridiculous. My doctor had to fill out my medical eligibility on the new meter-exempt parking form. Even though the questions didn't make sense to her, she had to answer them, and she felt so bad. The threat is on the medical professional if they don't fill the form out truthfully. The consequences to a physician are very severe.

I do a lot of arts advocacy all over the city. My doctor knows that parking is important to me. They want us to work--this is one thing that can help me work.

ONE TRAGIC consequence of this law has been that only a small fraction of those with disabilities have been able to obtain needed parking passes.

Bill Bogdan, the disability liaison for the Illinois Secretary of State's office, told the Chicago Tribune:

Just by the sheer number of placards that we issued--only about 31,000--[the law is] definitely going to reduce fraud and the abuse that was taking place. Under the old system, 100 percent of the people that had parking placards and disability plates were eligible. And now, we're at about 10 percent are eligible for the new exemptions. That's a significant number of individuals that didn't meet the eligibility criteria to obtain the new exempt parking.

Chicago Parking Meters LLC boasts on its website, "The new law is designed to ensure that only people with permanent physical disabilities are granted free parking while preventing fraud and abuse."

"Fraud and abuse"? In 2008, the deal that Chicago's then-Mayor Richard M. Daley made to sell off the city's publicly owned parking meters to Chicago Parking Meter LLC became synonymous with "corruption."

The firm has since hiked meter rates to the highest in the country. In 2012, the company reported a net profit of $20 million, and $27 million the year before that.

On top of what it collects at the meter box, Chicago Parking Meters LLC recovers lost revenue due to disabled parking, street construction and street closures during fairs and other projects by charging the city formula-based fees. Last year, the city paid Chicago Parking Meters LLC $54.9 million to make up profit lost to disabled motorists.

There is an incentive to reduce the number of drivers with disabilities receiving parking placards. The new law shifts the burden of profit compensation onto individuals by restricting access to needed free parking. The deal is a win-win for Chicago Parking Meters and the state. The corporation can continue to enjoy its millions, while the state can shirk responsibility for failing to meet human needs and simultaneously reinforce a "blame the victim" ideology.

THE TIME-tested practice of blaming the victim and pitting those who need services against one another is a way to preserve profits for those at the top by reducing public services. There are tremendous financial incentives to reinforcing an ideology that says that public services are being "stolen." Framing the parking issue as one of non-disabled people stealing resources from those with disabilities, however, downplays the real need for services for those with disabilities--and the fact that those services are continually underfunded.

For-profit ownership of parking spaces and meters and poorly funded, inaccessible public transit is a much bigger crime than the inappropriate use of disabled parking placards. While it's true that some people have wrongfully used the placards, that pales in comparison to what Chicago Parking Meters LLC and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have done to make life for disabled Chicagoans more complicated and costly

According to Sandahl:

The public attitude is shifting against people with disabilities. A series last year on the National Public Radio (NPR) program Planet Money was all about how people are scamming social security. The disability community was enraged by the story's overall message that we are gaming the system.

The right wing latched onto this story as proof that people with disabilities are "gaming" the system. If a media outlet they perceive to be liberal is tattling on disabled people and seemingly endorsing that there is rampant fraud and abuse in these systems, it must be true.

There is a lot of suspicion about disabled people, and it's because the economy is so bad. When the pie gets smaller and smaller, people argue more and more over the crumbs. I'm worried about my friends who are on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Nobody wants to live on SSI--come on. People can barely, barely, barely get by. It's not like people are living in the lap of luxury. I know a lot of people who just keep junkers going, and the only reason they drive is because parking is free. I don't know if those people will be able to drive now.

There's only so much you can pay. Thirty dollars to do something downtown? It's mean-spirited and thoughtless.

IN 2011, the national rate of employment for the general population was 70 percent. For disabled individuals during this time, the rate of employment was only 33.4 percent. A U.S. census report indicated that in 2011, 12.5 percent of the non-disabled population were living in poverty while 28.8 percent of the disabled population were living in poverty. Public funds, employment levels and poverty rates do not appear to be trending toward better outcomes in the near future.

Instead of punishing those with disabilities, Chicago politicians like Mayor Rahm Emanuel could make up for budget shortfalls and loss of income for the city by ending corporate property tax breaks, enacting a financial transactions tax and creating a jobs program. Instead, he has opted to shrink the supply of public services.

Last year, Emanuel closed 50 public schools--and half of Chicago's community mental health clinics the year before. Despite cries that Chicago is broke, Emanuel and his rubber-stamp city council simultaneously doled out millions in public finances to the likes of Whole Foods, Vienna Beef, and Marriott.

The actions of politicians show there is no shortage of money in Chicago--only a shortage of pressure to make it flow to where it can benefit the majority of people.

Sandahl's explanation of how disability is "constructed" in the system we live in has implications for how to fight for disability rights. According to her:

It's context specific. The idea of the "worthy disabled" and the "unworthy disabled" is wrong. Say you live in a town with all industrial jobs, and you have a bad back. People want to say that if you can't work, it's because you have a bad attitude, not a disability. It's like they think you're faking it.

I have a significant disability, yet I'm a tenured professor. A bad back wouldn't stop me from working. [But] if I lived in an industrial town, I couldn't work.

Disability is medically and socially constructed. The parking meters and transit systems not being accessible is because of an ableist structure--not because of my disability.

But disabled people have a long history of applying the sort of pressure that can challenge environmental and social barriers that capitalist society produces. Last summer, disability rights activists successfully pressured the city into reinstating a bus route in a transit-deprived area of town on Chicago's Southwest side. At a demonstration to mark the event Claudia Ayala, a public transit coordinator for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization stated:

We're not thanking anyone yet. This area has changed dramatically in the last several years, including [the addition of] a new high school. But the whole area has a complete lack of accessibility. These sidewalks should have been prioritized months ago.

We need to make sure the whole area is addressed entirely, because this lack of accessibility affects our entire community and our ability to go to work, go to school and really just live.

While justice for people with disabilities is a long way off, there is a path leading in the right direction--that's the one that should be taken in response to the placard law.

Further Reading

From the archives