Consumer View: Still Fighting for Personal Space

Accessibility in America

I reviewed the options. Plan B, leaving my husband in the van while I blitzed our favorite specialty food market, was out of the question. It was hot, and heat intensifies multiple sclerosis symptoms fast. Plan C—going home, getting him resettled, coming back alone—was a no. He'd been looking forward to this small trip all day. Plan D it was.

At the outer edge of the lot, I found two adjacent spaces, pulled into one, jumped out and hit the ramp button. I backed my husband's wheelchair out fast; any minute a car could swing around the big van into this "empty" space. We headed across the searing lot, knowing the empty space would be full when we returned. Someone should do something about this.

My accessibility skirmishes so far had been pretty tame. I'd spoken politely to managers of restaurants with inaccessible restrooms and boutiques whose inoperative elevators held racks of merchandise. I'd written to picturesque tourist villages whose every doorway had steps. Total responses, zero. Total results, ditto.

As we entered the market, the manager greeted us jovially. I took a deep breath and broached the subject of handicapped parking. Sudden chill. "We've got nothing to do with that. You should talk to mall management," he said. I asked for their phone number.

The next day, I called and got Erin, the mall's community relations manager. She promised to get back to me. A month later, I called again. "I'm afraid this is a city issue," she said. I contacted the city. They promised to look into it. Over the next several months, my calls were shuffled among three city offices. The last official told me it wasn't a city matter—parking guidelines were up to mall management.

I'd had it. I typed "ADA enforcement" into an Internet search engine and ended up at the U.S. Department of Justice Web site, where I downloaded an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint form and mailed it off. I knew my complaint was small potatoes for a federal agency. But I'd also copied the city mayor and Erin, and it felt good.

Nearly a year later, Judy, a mediator for the Department of Justice, called. She wanted to arrange a meeting at the mall with Erin about our complaint.

My husband and I were the first to arrive. For once, I was thrilled not to find a handicapped space in sight. I chose Plan D. The empty space was filled by the time Judy and Erin arrived, giving me our first point of discussion.

We walked (and rolled) the length of the mall—Erin brightly noting each one of the six blue placards, my husband and I pointing out barriers, Judy quietly taking notes. (I later learned the lot had 600 stalls. The ADA's minimum handicapped space requirement for a lot that size is 12.)

At the end of our tour, Judy asked me, "What would you consider the ideal outcome of this mediation?" Well, I mused, in many lots that size, the first space in each row is handicap reserved. Stifling a gasp, Erin said that simply wasn't feasible.

"What would be feasible?" Judy asked. Erin said she'd have to check with management, but they might be able to add five spaces and widen others for van access. However, because this was such a complex process, it couldn't be started until next year. I reminded her we'd first spoken more than a year before. "Yes, and I don't want you to think we pushed this aside!" she said. "We've been studying all the options."

Judy suggested Erin meet with her management and nail down a plan. She would call for the result on the following Monday. As Judy walked us back to our car, she said she felt for us and Erin. "She's got 20 merchants to placate," she said. "The last thing they want to hear is that spaces are being reduced to add handicapped parking."

A few days later, Judy phoned. Erin's company had agreed to the plan as outlined. The work would begin in six weeks.

The other day, we noticed men ripping out a large decorative island in the lot and paving over the hole. I didn't get a good look, though. I had my eyes peeled for a handicapped space.

This article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Mobility Management.

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