A Convenience for the Morally Disabled : Handicapped parking: Now, the violators have their own bootleg or borrowed placards in their BMWs and Rollses.

<i> Bill Bolte is a Los Angeles writer and activist on disability issues</i>

After The Times did a story this spring on handicapped-parking abuse, the topic became a media rage. I’ve been on three TV programs so far.

For the latest one, I took the crew to a spot where I caught hell last year and hadn’t returned. I use a power wheelchair and a lift-equipped van to get around. The location of the incident was Marina del Rey, in front of a restaurant in a shopping mall. I had told them that this spot was typical of the nature of handicapped-parking abuse today. The villains now have their own placards. A good 99% of the handicapped-parking placard users look, walk and move in such spry ways that a reasonable person would conclude that they were in no way disabled.

Now, when I wanted to make a point with the TV crew, the offending space was virginally empty. The crew asked me to drive around while they prepared to make a shot of me pulling into the handicapped space and getting out. So I drove on and watched for their signal.


Before I could park for the cameras, though, a white Rolls-Royce sedan pulled in. I felt completely vindicated since, on the drive over, I had regaled the reporter with descriptions of the archetypal abuser on the Westside: A 30-ish male or female driving a recent-model luxury four-door sedan, leaping from the car and dashing gracefully into the distance.

I watched with awe at the lack of shame or fear in the young, upper-class coastal Californians in the Rolls. They got out without hesitation, though it was obvious that the large camera and larger man taking pictures of them not eight feet away were from a TV station. The reporter, Patrick Healy, told me later that they unhesitatingly said that their handicapped placard belonged to their grandfather.

Again, I felt good. When we physically disabled people relate the abuses of our few rights, we often feel as though the able-bodied listener thinks we have an additional mental problem or are just oversensitive about our sad condition. Here was the smoking gun.

As I talked to the reporter, the owner of the pricey soul-food restaurant nearest the handicapped space came out to offer the crew, not me, a free meal any time at his establishment.

This had a bitter irony. The reason I had not been back to that space was the hell I caught from his restaurant staff and its customers the last time I was there. After eating, I had noticed a Jag and a Bronco II squeezed into a single handicapped space. Neither had disabled plates or placards. When I returned to the restaurant to ask for help in calling the police, I was asked who I was. It was hard for me, a large, bearded man in a power wheelchair, to believe that I had to remind these people that I had just been eating for an hour next to them at their bank of take-out phones. Still, they refused to call the police or let me call. The pay phone, in the back of the crowded restaurant, was virtually inaccessible to me.

Outside the restaurant, the waiting crowd of yuppies in shorts and sweat suits was turning surly. When I objected to another person in a BMW without a placard squeezing into a momentarily vacant half of a handicapped space, one of the beautiful people shouted that I was the one who should be arrested.

The police never came. I hadn’t been back until I went with the TV crew. Turns out nothing much has changed in Marina del Rey, except that it has grown less kind and gentle. Once, you knew the miscreants, because they parked in handicapped spaces without permits. Now they have permits. Also, someone has knocked down the sign with the picture of the wheelchair.

Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco) is offering a bill that would make it a little harder to get a placard, though not hard enough to cause problems for we severely disabled wheelchair users.

But we may be beyond the point of no return. With 650,000 handicapped placards issued by the state and possibly another 200,000 produced illegally, the convenience of handicapped parking may have become such a habit with the minimally or not-at-all disabled that they may be a more powerful political group than the really handicapped, particularly since so many of them seem so prosperous, and hardly any really disabled people are.

My van is 11 years old and has more than 110,000 miles on it. I have no idea where I would ever again get the money, now about $30,000, to purchase another one when it gives up the ghost.

So you see, there may be a solution. Severely physically disabled people who have transportation soon won’t have it, and the newly disabled won’t be able to afford it.