- The Washington Times
Friday, March 30, 2012

Advocates say disabled D.C. drivers should not be penalized because others motorists have fraudulently used handicapped placards to get parking spaces in the past.

The discussion was part of a roundtable hearing led by D.C. council member Mary Cheh on Thursday on the red-top parking meter program that had previously been set into motion on March 1 but was suspended by “emergency measures” for 90 days on March 20.

“I’m very pleased that we have landed in the space we have with this 90-day pause,” said council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, who had written a letter to council Chairman Kwame R. Brown calling for the extra time to discuss the program.

The red-top meter program is an effort to allow disabled drivers to pay to park at specially marked parking meters that met rules set by the Americans with Disabilities Act for twice the time allowed at regular meters.

Some advocates criticized the program because disabled individuals previously could park for free at any parking meter in the city as long as they had the necessary placards issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“Some people think we’re just trying to make money,” said council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat. “But there’s got to be a balance.”

Representatives of the disabled community said they felt blindsided by the introduction of the red-top program and were not adequately notified about the changes.

“This program was rolled out much too quickly,” said Kelly Buckland of the National Council on Independent Living.

Terry Bellamy, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation said the program was announced on Jan. 9 and that drivers had been allowed a one-month grace period before police could start ticketing.

Mr. Bellamy admitted that the city’s advertising on the new changes had been “too narrowly focused” and that they had notified “many of the agencies internal to the District” in person and over conference calls but had not carried out a large public advertising campaign.

For many people with disabilities and those advocating for them, the main issue is not just the money or a lack of communication. Some criticized the city for not offering enough places for disabled people to park because even some of the red-top parking spots do not meet the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mr. Buckland, who uses a wheelchair, said he personally has had problems feeding parking meters in the city because of things like dirt medians between sidewalks and streets and large planters getting in the way. He also pointed out that many parking garages in the area are not equipped to handle the height of some vans used by disabled people.

“A program for people with disabilities should at least be accessible to those with disabilities,” Heather Ansley of the United Spinal Association said in response to comments by Mr. Buckland and others who testified at the hearing.

Some said the solution to the red-top parking meter issue should simply be to let things stay the way they are and to not reinstate the program at all.

“I firmly believe the cost should be free,” said Dr. Carlo Tornatore, chairman of the department of neurology at Georgetown University Hospital, of parking for the disabled.

Dr. Tornatore said he often treats disabled patients who are on very low incomes and that requiring them to suddenly start paying for parking is unfair. To discourage able-bodied people from using disabled parking placards, he suggested making sure they get charged for their parking if they do.

“Punish those who abuse the system with stiff fines,” Dr. Tornatore said.

Those in favor of the red-top parking meter program agreed with those against it on that point.

Mr. Bellamy said that one of the main reasons for introducing the program was to “eliminate prime incentive for fraud” and stop non-disabled people from treating the disabled parking placards like “free parking passes.”

All who testified at the roundtable hearing said that changes needed to be made to the red-top parking meter program before it could move forward whether the desired changes were to eliminate the need for disabled people to pay for parking or to advertise the program more widely.

“I think it went very well in that many different views were discussed,” Ms. Cheh said of the discussion. “It makes me more confident that if we get a bunch of people together in one room to discuss it, we can eventually get to a solution moving forward.”

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