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What’s Wrong With This Picture — and Why It Matters

photo of an accessible parking space covered in snow

This image of an accessible parking space mostly covered with piles of snow is what greeted me when I recently went shopping with my children. I drove around and discovered that four out of the six accessible spaces along the front of the parking lot were blocked. Winter Storm Jonas had recently finished slamming a large portion of the East Coast with huge amounts of snow. Many of the areas affected were overwhelmed by the cleanup and had trouble keeping up with the plowing and treating of surfaces. That does not change the fact that a situation like this, especially when it occurs multiple times in the same parking lot, is completely unacceptable. It is also potentially illegal (more on that later). And it made me incredibly angry.

My anger stems from several issues. One: I have seen this happen year after year, although this is the most egregious example I’ve seen. Two: I have experienced firsthand what sort of problems this can cause. I have driven endless circles around a parking lot with a companion in a search for a parking space that would allow them to have space to get their wheelchair out of the car. I have seen the frustration and even pain in their eyes when we have to leave. Three: I see far too many instances in life of those with different abilities being marginalized by the general public. I believe they are told time and time again, whether in word or deed, that their needs don’t matter. And this parking lot is currently not meeting the needs of those who have mobility challenges.

Here are pictures from two of the other spaces.

photo of an accessible parking space covered in snow

snow covering accessible parking space in parking lot

What if someone couldn’t travel very far? What if a van with a wheelchair lift pulled up? Even if someone parked in the diagonally lined area of the second picture, there’s not enough space there to both park the van and deploy the lift. There would hardly be enough space to park and place a wheelchair in between cars.

Why does something like this happen? Sometimes people make mistakes or take shortcuts. But there are also conscientious property managers and snowplow drivers who understand why it is important that this not happen. It would be a shame if someone wasn’t able to enter a store and get what they needed simply because of the lack of accessible parking. No one should be made to feel unaccommodated or unwelcome. Even worse, what if someone was injured because of these unsafe conditions?

And then there is the issue of the law. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are regulations that outline the “minimum accessibility requirements for buildings and facilities.” The requirements clearly indicate the correct ratio of the Minimum Number of Accessible Parking Spaces Required per Total Number of Parking Spaces in Parking Facility. Not only that, it states that “One of every six accessible parking spaces, or fraction thereof, must be ‘van-accessible.’” I didn’t count, but it appeared that the ratio was off between accessible spaces and regular spaces. It was a large parking lot, and there was only one space that could accommodate a van with a wheelchair lift.

I am confident, however, that this parking lot was out of compliance with these stipulations: “Where a parking facility serves multiple buildings or accessible entrances, accessible parking spaces should be dispersed to enable people to park near as many accessible entrances as possible. For example: A shopping center has fifteen stores, each with a separate entrance. There is one large parking lot with 1000 spaces. The twenty accessible parking spaces should be dispersed to provide some options for people to park close to the different stores.”

Also, “Accessible spaces must connect to the shortest possible accessible route to the accessible building entrance or facility they serve.” The two unobstructed accessible spaces were on the same end of the parking lot. These spaces were quite a distance from more than half of the shops. This could be too far for some people with mobility challenges, just to name one potential problem.

By the way, the ADA laws even address snow removal. Under “Maintenance” it states: “It is important that accessible features be maintained, and outdoor spaces can be especially challenging because of weather and other conditions. Accessible parking spaces, aisles, and routes should be maintained in good repair and kept clear of snow, ice, or fallen leaf build-up.”

Sometimes accessibility costs extra work and extra money. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. I totally understand that complying with these regulations can be difficult. As the daughter of a small business owner, I have seen the financial struggles involved with running a company. But when I ask that something like these pictures I posted not happen, I am not being unreasonable. The law agrees with me.

So please, if you are a property manager, business owner or snowplow operator, I ask that you help make sure this kind of thing does not happen. Accessible parking spaces should not be used to store snow.

I wrote this post to help people understand why something like this is important, not to slam snowplow operators, small business owners or property managers. I wrote this for all my friends, both adults and children, who use wheelchairs or need accessible parking for other reasons. They are often frustrated by trying to navigate in a world that was not always designed with them in mind and is at times even hostile toward them. I wrote it for their loved ones. I wrote it for every person who has ever felt “different” or excluded. This incident made me fear for my own son, who has a brain that is wonderfully unique. I worry that his needs will be dismissed with the same icy indifference as those piles of snow. That is why I am angry.

And that companion I mentioned earlier? He relied on a wheelchair for his mobility and was one of the strongest people I have ever met. We spent the majority of our time together one semester when I was in college. Many memories came flooding back as I wrote this. Whenever it snowed, he was stuck in his apartment until all the sidewalks were plowed. He asked his landlord to please clear his walkway first, but it almost always ended up being cleared last because his was the building furthest away from the office.

We lived in a small town, and many buildings had not yet adapted to the new accessibility codes. We once attended a formal event at a local restaurant and discovered there were steps at the entrance but no ramp. I had to help him wheel up the steps backwards: he pushed the wheels and I pulled the handles. Things like that happened more often than you would expect, and my arms got very strong that year. That night he was in a suit and I was in a short dress and high heels and the whole thing made quite the scene. We hated making scenes. It also bothered us because every place open to the public should be accessible, and when they were not, it made him feel like a second-class citizen.

Once we went to a McDonald’s that had a sign in the parking lot stating “Handicap Accessible Van Parking,” and yet when my friend tried to enter the bathroom, he found that his chair would not fit through the door. He spoke to the manager, who apologized profusely and offered him gift certificates. My friend did not accept them; he just asked that they fix the door. I remember the look of anger and humiliation on my friend’s face, but it was the manager who should have been humiliated. It still brings me pain to recall that moment, so I can only imagine how it felt for my friend.

My favorite memory was also born out of a moment that presented accessibility challenges. The time came for my friend to graduate from college. He had worked incredibly hard, and it was his day to celebrate. At the last minute he realized there were a couple of steps leading up to the podium where he was to receive his diploma, and no one had thought about the fact that there was a member of that graduating class in a wheelchair. He mentioned it to the event organizers, and was instructed by the flustered administrators that he was to leave the line when it was his turn and approach the podium from the ground. He did not argue, but also did not agree. He decided he was not going to be the one graduate who did not go across that stage. He quietly employed the help of a friend who was a member of student council and happened to be standing nearby to help with the proceedings. At the last second, they bumped his chair backwards up the steps, and he then went across that stage proudly when his name was called. I saw the school administrators squirm and tense up as it happened, possibly because they were worried about potential injury and lawsuits, but then they hung back and decided not to say anything. My friend looked strong and proud that day. He handled that situation calmly and with dignity, and that moment of honor is what he deserved.

I share all these memories to illustrate exactly why I feel so strongly about a simple, yet not so simple, pile of snow. It feels personal to me, but it should matter to everyone. Accommodation matters. Dignity matters. Obeying the law matters. It’s about so much more than snow.

A version of this post originally appeared on Seriously Not Boring. You can also find Jennifer Bittner at her Seriously Not Boring Facebook page.