A Symbol for ‘Nobody’ That’s Really for Everybody

The blue and white wheelchair icon is more than a guide to parking spots and ramps. It allows millions to fully participate in society.

Comments: 26

  1. This symbol is also one of the more ignored symbols in America. I have seen perfectly healthy people with no handicap and no sticker park in these spaces because, like the neighbor in this essay, they want that parking space in front of the store no matter what. And, to add insult to injury, if these people are confronted about it they say that it's only going to take them 5 minutes to run their errand. Yes, that may be so but what is the handicapped person supposed to do while you do that if they come along and need the space? One answer I received was that the person didn't care. Others have been more colorful. Do I like being unable to find a space when the handicapped one is free? No, but I look at this way. If I'm ever handicapped I hope that those spaces are available for me. It can be very hard for a person who is in a wheelchair, who uses a cane or a walker, or who is a dwarf to negotiate a parking lot safely. Being able to park close to the store and do one's shopping on one's own is important. I think that the able bodied among us can sacrifice just a bit to encourage others independence in life as well as their dignity.

  2. Nothing is perfect. My oldest daughter who still lives with us has always been in a wheelchair. I agree with the writer that access means participation .

  3. @hen3ry: On several occasions injuries & orthopedic surgeries have caused me to apply for & obtain an HC parking permit (4-yr "permanent" or 6-mo temporary). Towards the latter portions of my recovery from those surgeries or injuries, I had more good days than bad and so on good days did not use the placard, especially because having been wheelchair-bound on occasion I realized how vital those spots are to those who can't even get around on crutches. On one of those "good" days I had dropped my rollator-bound octogenarian heart/lung-patient mom off at the lobby entrance of a FL movie theater (she asked me to because she couldn't walk from even the HC spots) and gone to park in its underground garage. I saw the one remaining "regular" spot and took it. Before I could even stow the placard behind my sun visor, another driver pulled up and yelled at me: "You have an HC placard--you can park ANYWHERE! How DARE you take the one remaining spot from those of us without placards!" You can't win for losing... The real reason so many abuse these placards is because most states exempt the holder from parking-meter and maximum-stay laws. No longer the case in IL, as most cities have replaced coin-op meters with credit-card-accepting computerized boxes a la Europe--and all meters can be operated via smartphone apps. Only those who can prove they can't operate a box, meter or smartphone can get special meter-exempt permits. Applications are way down...as are renewals. Good!

  4. My (now late) father obtained a handicapped parking permit in his last years, following a hip fracture, when walking became a challenge (losing most of his vision to macular degeneration did not help physical navigation). Parking in close proximity to destinations helped maintain a pretty good quality of life, though. Dad could not drive, but we gladly took him to his favorite places, like to restaurants, for coffee, to visit people, and his favorite routine, Saturday morning breakfast at his preferred cafe. That would not have been possible had we been at the mercy of parking spaces. That blue permit with the person in a wheelchair sent a message to people, too. When they saw it approaching an entrance, patrons and staff would jump up and hold a door for him. Or when we were departing, they would help Dad into the car and hold his car door while he adjusted inside. I think more people would appreciate the necessity of handicapped spaces if they saw the individuals who need them.

  5. Ms. Guffey, President George H.W. Bush may have signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law in 1990, but today's Republicans would probably reject it. In fact, in 2012. Senate Republicans rejected ratification International Disabilities Treaty designed to improve the prospects of those with disabilities around the world by a vote of 61–38. All “no” votes came from Republicans, even after former Senator Bob Dole, in a wheelchair, pleaded with Republican senators to pass it on the Senate floor. The measure fell just five votes short of achieving the two-thirds of the Senate approval required for passage. https://thinkprogress.org/senate-republicans-vote-down-international-dis... On the other hand, today's Georgia Republicans recently expressed a sudden interest in ADA compliance issues in rural and mostly black Randolph County and wanted to close most of the voting stations because they were not ADA-compliant. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/23/us/randolph-county-georgia-voting.html But alas, that was just a Republican cover story; Republicans were just trying to suppress the black vote, as usual. It turns out Republican don't give a damn about handicapped people or democracy. Happy parking and voting.... neither of which the medieval Republican Party would like to help you with.

  6. @Socrates Yes, today's Republican party is essentially a generalized mass of mean-spirited spite. They don't really care who the scapegoat-of-the-day might be, up until the day it includes them. Then, they ask, "What's happened to the Republican party I knew?" Never stopping to consider how much they supported its lies on the road to fascism and treason.

  7. Although many have disabilities that are not easily visible, I find many healthy, mobile but “entitled” individuals use these spots merely for their own convenience. I live in a suburban community where people frequently double park, illegally park, do stunningly illegal U-turns, or otherwise travel around town as if the world revolves around their convenience. Tickets should be more widely issued for such infractions.

  8. @Linda G. Maryanov In NYC a handicapped persons car was mistakenly towed from the theater district. A local politician decided to hod a press conference with the permit holder, calling for an investigation of how this happened to this poor person. The press conference was cancelled when the permit holder told the politician that he was going to call for legislation that allows handicapped people to park at fire hydrants. I was once told that if a handicapped permit car was parked by a hydrant they needed to fight a fire they would break the windows and run the hose through the car, making sure that water from the hose leaks into the car. I thought this was an urban legend until I recently saw a picture of this online.

  9. A 'legal right' may sound nice, but there is a lot of abuse. I am for doing what is reasonable and economic, but there has been reported many instances of people inspecting handicap facilities then filing lawsuit on minor infractions. Sadly, everything goes downhill when the courts get involved.

  10. @wnhoke Don't you agree that it is better to ensure enforcement of legal rights before a person with a disability is denied entry because a business has failed to meet its obligations?

  11. @wnhoke Everything does not go downhill when the courts get involved--they can protect hard-won benefits from being taken away by people with very little sympathy for those less fortunate. House Republicans have, for now, been thwarted in attempts to reverse some of those gains: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/620 . That bill would have inhibited use of the courts for redress in numerous civil circumstances.

  12. UNTIL MY WIFE'S MOTHER AND MY WIFE Needed to be close to entrances due to limited mobility, I looked for the reserved parking icons when I wanted to be sure that my car wouldn't be ticketed and towed. When my wife's mother came to live near us in the Philly area at 85, we began to see her need for easy access because of her limited mobility. Then three years ago, my wife had two broken femurs allegedly due to the negative side effects of a bis-phosphate medication. For a period we needed to have easy access. My wife's mother lives in a senior community with limited elevator space and lots of residents who use canes, walkers and wheelchairs. And I can tell you that they use them vigorously, having witnessed weekly traffic jams to get on to the elevators. Just be sure not to block their paths!

  13. I worked in the NYC DOT IT Department for over 30 years. I designed the system for NYS (Blue Hangtag) and NYC (Placard) Handicapped permits. In order to design the system I had to know the rules and procedures for issuing permits. I saw the problems faced by bureaucrats in issuing these permits. I also saw the evidence of abuse, and how politicians vetoed attempts to cut down on this abuse when petitioned by handicapped constituents. Sometime there is no clear answer of who gets a permit. If a person lost a leg they are entitled to a permit. With the advancement in prosthetics the city started getting complaints of young amputees using the permits. There was a debate if they were still entitled to to the permit. One of the problems with the hangtag permit is it is one permit for many disabilities. The same permit given for a person in a wheel chair is also given for someone with a heart condition. It entitles both permit holders to park in a “Van Acessable” spot, even though the heart patient may be able to park in a non-Van Accessible Handicapped spot.

  14. Great article. Unfortunately, those these spaces are reserved for the disabled they are often used by people whose only disability is laziness. My wife is an ophthalmologist and has been besieged by patients asking her to approve their applications for disabled parking permits. Her stock answer is that the only way she could accommodate them would be on the basis of blindness, in which case she would also have to notify the state that their driver’s license be cancelled. How many takers do you think she has had? Maybe it just where I live, but the majority of people I see using these spaces have no difficulty at all walking into the store. Thus those who really need these spaces find them occupied by people who do not need them. Shamefull.

  15. @TW Smith While I don't want to be naive about the occasional abuse of the system, the truth is that you do not know if someone is disabled because you perceive that they "have no difficulty at all walking into the store," or if they are there to assist someone with a more visible disability that you would approve of. Judging from my mother's experience in Washington State, it's not actually that easy to get a sticker or placard. One hopes that better enforcement will eventually deter the true abusers, especially those without a sticker, but please check your assumptions about things you know nothing about. Thanks for the great article. Aside from the history of the design, it's important to be reminded of how recent some of the advances we've made as a society - and how quickly those advances can be reversed, as others here have pointed out.

  16. @TW Smith In addition to what @Daniel says, some people may have no difficulty walking TO the store, but they cannot necessarily handle a long walk to the store, a long walk IN the store, and a long walk back to the car. Sometimes a short walk TO the store is what enables people to do their own shopping. Not every disability is visible on the outside or even on the trip from car to store. Yes, some people definitely abuse the spaces, but be aware that you can't always tell who they are by watching them exit their cars.

  17. So you can tell by looking at someone if they have a disability or not? You’re incredible! Personally, I can’t tell if someone has Parkinson’s, cancer, a heart condition, Lupus, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia or numerous other “invisible” illnesses. Yes, there are some people who take advantage (notably widows or widowers of handicapped people who don’t turn in the tags) but stop judging the rest of us by your limited knowledge.

  18. Thank you for this. I am a person who became disabled in the past year. I, of course, never fully appreciated the ADA before. Now I get it--I REALLY get it.

  19. As a result of injury, I've been temporarily disabled and using crutches four times in my life. Every time, I thank those who fought for cuts in the curbs around my house, ramps into public buildings, and larger toilet stalls. None of these accommodations would have happened without activists who believed that everyone is entitled to access to public space. It would never occur to me to take a parking space meant for someone with mobility challenges because I know it could be me who needs that space some day. Empathy paves the way to a more inclusive society and practices that benefit us all.

  20. Guffey's neighbor, who casually used the word, "nobody" when referring to parking spaces reserved for disabled drivers reminded me of my workplace. I teach at a public college in the NY metro area. Almost daily, students drive up in cars with handicapped placards and park in front of a building rather than walk the 440 yards to their classroom. They jump out of the cars, sometimes with friends, and are clearly able-bodied. It seems that they borrow their parent's/grandparent's car and take advantage of the wheelchair placard to nab a good space with no concern for the person who really needs the space and has to park far away and wait for ages to get a ride from security guards. To me, this speaks to a larger issue with regard to young people. I think disabled are often not seen, and as Guffey suggests, as "nobodies." Just like other subjects, the topic of disability should be integrated into curriculums at a k-12 level. I wish someone would figure out how to teach empathy too because it would be a powerful antedoe to many of our contemporary woes.

  21. It is very important to punish people who misuse parking spots reserved for disabled people. But don't jump to a hasty conclusion when a person who appears to be able-bodied uses the space. If in doubt, I believe it is okay to ask them politely if they are qualified as disabled or are helping someone disabled, but it is not okay to judge or confront them without having all the facts first. I am able bodied but have a disabled brother. I have gotten the evil eye from people when I've parked in a handicap spot, in a car with a handicap sticker, then dashed inside. The angry onlookers didn't realize I was going inside to help my disabled brother get out to the car. I would have welcomed them asking me politely what I was doing, rather than condemning me unjustly. Please don't be too quick to judge and get angry at a situation that may not be what it first seems.

  22. The wheelchair symbol definitely has its pros and cons. Many disabled people who need the parking spaces do not use wheelchairs, and I have heard people insist that the spaces are for wheelchair users only, not for all disabled people. And then there is the great bathroom debate: some believe that the disabled accessible stalls are really disabled reserved stalls, and bitter arguments and resentments have resulted. I wonder if the wheelchair symbol really "reads" as being inclusive as Guffey finds it to be. On the other hand, I can't think of a better symbol! I do like the active wheelchair user that is superimposed on the official wheelchair symbol in the graphic that accompanies this article.

  23. Seems to be more indolence and lack of awareness that makes people take those designated spots, so maybe a little education would help. We need enforcement of these spaces at the same level as that for blocked hydrants and driveways, except the penalty for taking that handicapped space is not money--it should be an afternoon in a simulation of a physical handicap. You take that space, some stern official is going to take you to a busy and crowded parking lot and make you wend your way a couple of thousand feet in a heavy wheelchair or with a cumbersome brace on your legs or crutches--ain't much fun. Might cut down the number of chronic offenders pretty quickly. If you can just hop out of your vehicle and jog into the store, you should be mortified to take the spot reserved for a person who needs 5 or 10 minutes just to get out of their vehicle and get ready to go. I will tell you that when I see an able body get out of a vehicle in a handicapped spot, I clearly and LOUDLY announce to him/her---and everyone within a quarter of a mile "You're in a handicapped spot=regular parking is over there" And no, I'm not handicapped, but I'm of an age where most of my compatriots have difficulties getting around and the threat of being isolated because they can't easily and safely from their car to the door of their choice is a real issue Walk that extra couple of hundred feet if you can==it's good for you!

  24. I was driving with the old logo NYS permit on the mirror. The NYS permit is the same on both sides so ithe hoock can be used in either direction and as not to discriminate against right or left handed people. My daughter in the back seat pointed out that if you hold the permit to llight sideways the two figures are having sex. When I pointed this out to the supervisor of the state permits at NYC DOT, the first thing she did was to take a permit and held it up to the light to confirm it.

  25. I am traveling in Europe and saw a sign by a spot reserved for people wurh handicapped placards: “ if you were going to take my space please also take my handicap.” I think that about says it all.

  26. Thank you, NYT for publishing this important piece