L.A. quadruples the fine for disabled-placard fraud, but will it help?
LA Times Today airs Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Spectrum News 1. An undercover officer with the Department of Motor Vehicles waits with a shopping cart next to a disabled parking spot while conducting a sweeping enforcement of fra
After 17 years navigating Los Angeles in a wheelchair, reality star Angela Rockwood rarely bothers looking for a blue spot to park anymore.
“I always have to park in the neighborhood,” said the star of the Sundance Channel’s “Push Girls,” referring to the many residential enclaves of L.A.’s Westside, where she lives, plays and sees medical specialists, and where a disabled placard trumps a locals-only parking decal. “You’re not going to find anything on the streets. They’re all taken. There just isn’t enough.”
Disabled parking is in a protracted crisis in California, one that has thrust Los Angeles into an unlikely fight for reform. But while everyone knows there’s a problem, few agree on the cause, and fewer still on what should be done about it.
Meanwhile, thousands of Angelenos such as Rockwood routinely miss parties, auditions and doctors’ appointments because they physically can’t escape their cars.
“I know a lot of people who are in wheelchairs who are in really good shape — we don’t mind coming further, but we need those lines,” said Tamara Mena, an actress who, like Rockwood, survived a spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair. “I have a ramp, and I’m not able to just park on the street and get out.”
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles City Council voted to increase the fine for disabled-parking placard fraud to $1,100 from $250, saying it would deter abuse and reserve the coveted blue spots for the people who truly need them.
But experts doubt that it will.
Placards exempt users from meters and time limits, which is why they’re regularly swiped by able-bodied drivers, dozens of whom were cited recently at Coachella, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Disability law scholar Doron Dorfman of Stanford estimates that about 11% of California placards — roughly 270,000 statewide, and more than 75,000 in L.A. County — are similarly abused. But he and other experts disagree over the extent to which fraud is the root of the city’s growing problem, and whether fines or even increased enforcement are likely to solve it.
“The big things everybody says will solve the problem are more [disabled] parking places, increasing the fine and increasing enforcement. I’ll go on record as saying those three approaches will not solve the problem,” said Fernando Torres Gil, a professor of social welfare and public policy at UCLA and a polio survivor who was vice chair of the National Council on Disability under President Obama.
Instead, he and his UCLA colleague, urban planning expert Donald Shoup, have rallied local politicians behind a dramatic and deeply unpopular reform: a split system such as the one now in effect in Illinois and Michigan, that would strip many existing rights from thousands of disabled Californians.
The so-called two-tier system would divide California’s current placard holders — roughly 2.5 million people, or about 6% of the population — into those with severe mobility impairments and those whose disabilities are less physically limiting, shearing the latter class of many of their existing protections.
Proponents say the change would eliminate the most egregious fraud overnight, and deter malingerers who “think of [placards] as their free parking pass.” A version of the two-tier plan was endorsed by the City Council in 2017, and state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) has spent months seeking support for a possible bill in Sacramento.
“Someone who has a real disability should be very outraged at the lax enforcement of placard abuse and the lax enforcement of placard issuance,” said Shoup, the parking expert. In a two-tier system, “people with real disabilities realize they would be much better off.”
But the proposal has drawn bitter ire from many disability rights groups and others in the community, who say it’s born of the mistaken belief that impairment is obvious and unchanging. Even fines and abuse stings can have painful unintended consequences for the community, they say.
The obsession with fraud creates a “culture of harassment” for people who may not fit the public image of disability — wheelchair users who also walk, gym-rat amputees and young mothers with multiple sclerosis and infant seats in their cars.
“It’s this idea that we must be so helpless and dependent, if we’re showing that we’re not those things, our disability can’t be real,” said Ellen Samuels, a disability scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison whose book “Fantasies of Identification” explores the issue. “[Fraud] is about people using other people’s permits, yet it leads to this thought that a lot of people are getting permits they don’t really need.”
The belief is so pervasive that many legitimate users gird themselves for harassment almost every time they park.
“I get out of my car and I think, if someone gives me a problem, I’ll just be like, ‘Google me,’” said Karolyn Gehrig, a disabled artist and writer who created the #hospitalglam hashtag on Instagram to highlight invisible illness. “The placards are there so we can live our lives, and have access to things. They’re not there so we can be in pain in an exhibitionistic way in public.”
Yet, according to Dorfman, the legal expert, that’s often exactly what vigilante groups are looking for when they patrol cities such as Houston, Omaha and Colorado Springs, Colo.
“Nowadays there’s forces of volunteers, able-bodied volunteers who are going and enforcing disabled parking spots in Texas,” he said. “It’s crazy! People are obsessed with this.”
Torres and Shoup pushed back hard on the idea that people with a legitimate claim to accommodation had something to fear from reform. The vast majority of people considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act do not have mobility impairments, Torres pointed out, and many of those who currently qualify for parking placards could still enjoy equal access guaranteed by the law if they had to pay the parking meter.
“If that’s the price we have to pay to ensure we’ve got equity, maybe we’ve got to grin and bear it,” he said of street harassment. But he said a two-tiered system would eliminate vigilantism because “it gets people away from having to determine on the street whether you have a disability or not.”
And the blue crush will only get worse, Torres warned. More Americans than ever before are aging into disability, and those who are born with physical impairments or acquired them as children now live much longer than they used to.
“Where states instituted the two-tiered policy, requests for placards dropped dramatically,” he said. “Let’s just bite the bullet and deal with it now.”
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