"Annie, come on!" My niece tugged on my hand. We were headed to the car from preschool pickup but I had stopped and was staring at a long row of handicap accessible parking, halfway full of minivans with no permits. Able-bodied adults loaded and unloaded their able-bodied little ones. A knot formed in my throat and then twisted as confusion gave way to the realization that these precious spots were being used for convenience.
But then I remembered: before accessible parking became so important to my family, I didn't know much about it. I used to feel a twinge of annoyance to see open spots up front while I had to walk (on my strong, healthy legs) from the outer reaches of a crowded lot. It's human nature to look at things from our own point of view, so maybe it makes sense that many people don't understand accessible parking. If that's the case for you or someone you know, here's what I hope is a helpful introduction.
Accessible parking (usually called "handicapped" parking, but we're using the word "accessible" here because it's more respectful and accurate) is reserved for individuals who have any kind of physical disability that warrants getting a legal accessible parking permit in the form of a placard or license plate. Both the permit and the parking spots are marked with the familiar blue backdrop behind a drawing of a person using a wheelchair. This area of parking is located closest to the entrance because the people using it need to park closer.
SIDE NOTE: A physical disability can include anything from using a wheelchair to having a metabolic disorder that can't be "seen" but that severely limits energy levels. It is up to an individual and her doctor to determine whether accessible parking is necessary and it's not for the rest of us to judge. Yes, some people borrow their grandmother's placard so they can park close illegally, but that's rare and there's no way to know anyway. Just assume that if someone has an accessible parking permit, a lot of time, effort, and likely heartache have gone into getting it.
Because accessible parking spots are reserved for individuals with official permits, no one else can park there. Ever. Even if the business is closed. Even if there are ten open accessible spots. Even if you'll just be a minute. Even if you have to shepherd 17 kids inside. Why?
Mainly because it's illegal. Would you park by a hydrant because there is no fire truck needing access to it right now? Of course not. You know there's a reason that space needs to be left open. And you know that if you park there, you're parking illegally and may get a ticket.
Beyond legality, it's disrespectful to park in an accessible spot you don't need because it assumes that it's not needed by someone else. But you can't know who might be on the way right now. A field trip for kids with disabilities. An outing of elderly people. A support group for people recovering from serious injuries. You just don't know.
Parking in an accessible spot without a permit sends the message that those spots are not a big deal. But they are. They are a very big deal. For some people, accessible parking is a gateway to accessing their community. It makes it possible to go to the store themselves, to visit their grandchild's classroom, to do something that is normal and easy to many others.
We are all prone to believe that things we don't see as a big deal aren't a big deal at all. But to many living life with disability, accessible parking is a sign and symbol of welcome. It says there is a place for you here. By reserving a few parking spots, we extend that same welcome. We make space in the world and in our own lives for the needs of others.