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Accessible Parking Part 2: For the Insiders

We've already talked about the who and when of accessible parking. Now let's talk about some guidelines for those of us who DO have legal access to those parking spots.

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Let me start off by saying: none of what we're getting ready to discuss is law. If you disregard these guidelines, chances are very slim that you will be penalized for it. But here's the thing: someone else may face consequences if you do. Unfortunately, in my experience, far more accessible parking issues arise from those parking legally but thoughtlessly than from those parking without a permit.

First, permits are for people, not vehicles. That means you need to be with the person for whom the permit is intended in order to use accessible parking spots. No using your grandma's placard to park up close. No accessible parking for me when Collin is at home.

Next, mind the lines. A distinguishing characteristic of accessible parking isn't just how close it is to the front of the lot -- it usually also provides extra room for exiting and entering the vehicle. This space is marked by a section of diagonal lines between parking spaces. This is not free space. It is reserved space. That means it's not for parking in.

This may not always be convenient. Maybe the person who needs extra room to exit the vehicle is on the passenger side of the car but the diagonal lines are on the driver's side of the parking space. That does not mean you can park halfway in the space to leave room on the other side of the car. It means you need to back into that space. 

The other bit of information not all accessible parkers understand (I certainly didn't before it pertained to me) is that not all accessible parking spots are created equal. Some are specifically "van accessible." What does this mean? Why is there no picture? How are we supposed to know what to do with this information? I shudder to think how many times I parked in the van accessible spot when we were still chauffeuring Collin in a sedan or non-adapted minivan.

Van accessible spots have a significantly wider reserved area next to the parking space because they are intended for adapted vehicles, which usually require deploying a ramp in order for one of the passengers to exit the vehicle. I want to make sure we all catch that: without a van accessible parking spot and an unobstructed area beside it, people riding in a ramp van CANNOT GET IN OR OUT OF THEIR VEHICLE.

So the final tip for insiders is this: leave the van accessible spots open if you don't need them. If ANY other accessible parking spots are available, use those instead.

There are always exceptions, I know. Some people have circumstances I can't account for and need to use accessible parking differently from most. (At least, that's what I tell myself when Collin gets parked out of our van.) But for the vast majority of us permit-holders, a small amount of thoughtfulness can make a huge difference in whether and how others can access a place we evidently think is worth visiting, since we're there too.

Accessible Parking, Part 1: A Primer

"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.

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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.

Three Wishes

I've started to make some plans for homeschool this year and even to get excited about the possibilities. I know Collin is going to be just fine and learn a lot. But today is still a hard day. It's the first day of school for our district, so the disappointing outcome of our two years of hard work is feeling more concrete.

I try not to waste much time wishing things were different. Not only is it pointless, but it also typically doesn't mesh with the fact that I fully accept Collin just as he is. But today it feels okay to be wishful. And I can't help but wish today was Collin's first day of school. I wish I was dressing him in his uniform and packing up his backpack and feeling nervous about how the other kids would react to him. 

I wish public school was for everyone, not just those who fit easily into the system. That the system was geared more toward students than policies. Why can't the process of finding a place in that system be more of a partnership and less of a standoff? In which the approach is Let's come together to make school work for this kid instead of Here's what we're required to do, do you want it or not? Who loses out when we listen to the needs of the kid, even when -- or maybe especially when -- his parents have to speak for him?

Ultimately, I wish there weren't so many battles -- not just in the world of education, but in the world at large. So much of Collin's everyday life seems to require making a way: the countless public places that aren't wheelchair accessible, the medical equipment that languishes in an endless paperwork trail for months, the insurance companies that deny medications or supplies they've been covering for years. "It's always something," parents of kids with disabilities say to each other, and it's not just a saying. But it becomes your normal, so you stop noticing quite as much until a bigger roadblock comes along and then you find yourself asking: Why does it have to be a fight for my kid to get from here to there? To get what he needs? To go to school?

Wishing is pointless in that it changes nothing about the situation. But being open about what's hard and unfair benefits everyone. It lets you in on our reality, and it helps me move forward. So now I'm going to look at some first day of school pictures on Facebook and then take this kid to the arcade.

Meeting Annie

We sat about halfway back from the stage in the weird half-gym where my niece would be performing as Mother Goose in the kindergarten musical. It was hot and loud. Collin was on the end of our row of folding chairs, because that's life with a wheelchair.

She came through the door bundled up in a coat, like maybe she had chosen to skip part of her recess to see this play. She had the confidence of a "big kid". Probably at least third grade. So it must have been a younger sibling she was there to see. She spotted her parents and moved toward them. Until she saw Collin.

She stopped in her tracks when she laid eyes on him. I heard her audibly gasp. Her face lit up with a delight that I didn't understand, but recognized immediately. I smiled back at her, mostly because I couldn't help it, and she took a seat close by as the play started.

I look at Collin a lot during events. I enjoy it more when I see his reaction. And every time I looked over, she was watching him too.

Before the applause had completely faded, she climbed between the seats in front of us and was in our row. She was touching Collin before the words were all the way out of her mouth: "Hi, what's your name?" When he didn't answer, she looked up at me, not willing to wait. "What's his name?"

She rubbed his head, just like he likes. She complimented his shoes. She squeezed his hand. She laughed at his happy kicks.

"What's your name?" I asked. She looked straight at me. "Annie," she said. "My dream is to start a school for kids like Collin."

How to Say Thank You

It's not as easy as you might think.

When hundreds of people step into your life and turn it upside down for good. When generosity exceeds the boundaries of comprehension. A thank you note just doesn't seem to cut it.

We are emerging from a period of overwhelm around here.  I think we're finally coming to terms with the fact that this really is our home and we're ready to really live in it.

And that is our ultimate thank you: accepting what we've been given by living a full, messy, shared life in this beautiful, accessible house. Singing in Collin's roll-in shower. Gluey art projects in his school room. Knocking into walls in his gait trainer. Quiet breakfasts at the wheelchair accessible kitchen island. Loud dinners in the wide-open dining room. Talking and reading on the roll-out patio.

By living and loving our own version of normal, we fill our days to the brim with gratitude -- we say our most heartfelt thank you to everyone who made this wonderful thing possible.