Why Accessibility Matters (and why this picture of snow piled in accessible parking spaces makes me so angry)




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 scene 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 have ever 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 simply leave. Three: I see far too many instances in life of those with different abilities being marginalized by the general public. 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.


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.

Now, who is to blame for this? In this case I do not know whether it was the snowplow operator or the property manager who was responsible for the decision to put the snow here. Efforts to contact someone to discuss the problem have failed. The main point is that this should not happen.

I took to Facebook to discuss the problem and hopefully help raise awareness. The fact is, it is a situation that a lot of people don’t think about. People don’t realize all the things that can create accessibility issues. The post and pictures received some interesting and enlightening responses.

Why does something like this happen? Ignorance? Some people may not fully comprehend the problems that a scene like this can cause. They may also be unaware that ADA laws dictate that this NOT happen. Exhaustion? This storm dumped multiple feet of snow on some locations. Snowplow operators worked almost around the clock this weekend and were scrambling to keep up. Or is it money? I have heard from a snowplow operator who says that some property managers struggle with the price of snow removal and that it is more expensive to properly clear the accessible spaces. I have heard from a property manager who said that they have at times been taken advantage of by snowplow operators who pile snow in accessible spaces when they are not supposed to.

Again, in this situation I don’t know who is to blame. Sometimes people make mistakes, or people 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, but 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 that 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 what is seen in these pictures NOT happen, I am NOT being unreasonable. The law agrees with me.

So please, 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. My purpose in writing this was not to slam snowplow operators, small business owners, or property managers. It was to help people understand why something like this is important, and the impact it could have.

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 towards 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 this pile of snow. THAT is why I am angry. This issue goes far beyond just these pictures.

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, and when I stared at those piles of snow. Whenever it snowed my friend 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.

Another thing that frustrated my friend was when people would pull into the lined zones next to the accessible space and put on their hazards (like that makes it okay) to run in the store for “just a sec.” Not only did they NOT leave enough space for him to get his wheelchair out of his car, they were also often blocking the curb cut or ramp onto the sidewalk. Do you know how hard it is to jump a curb in a wheelchair by yourself? Nearly impossible.

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.

The worst incident I recall happened at a restaurant where the wheelchair-accessible entrance was around to the side. That was bad enough, because making someone go into a side door instead of through the front like everyone else takes away a piece of their dignity. To add to the insult, after we worked our way all the way around the building we discovered the restaurant manager had let that night’s band block the entrance with their van while they unloaded their gear. That was where he had told them to park, and the door was inaccessible. We were both furious. The manager was dismissive. There was an argument. I’ll leave it at that.

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. Brilliant. 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. Just like EVERYONE ELSE. It was what he deserved. I saw the school administrators squirm and tense up as it happened, probably because they were worried about potential injury and lawsuits, but then they hung back and decided not to say anything (good choice). 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. Accessibility matters. Dignity matters. Obeying the law matters. It’s about so much more than just snow.



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4 thoughts on “Why Accessibility Matters (and why this picture of snow piled in accessible parking spaces makes me so angry)

  1. KraftedKhaos February 1, 2016 / 5:58 PM

    As an able-bodied person, I’m ashamed to admit that I never noticed this issue, but as soon as I started reading, my brain began flashing images of giant snow drifts in parking lots and realized how right you are, this is indeed an issue. I will be looking out for this in the future to see if I can help rectify this callous disregard for those with disabilities.

    Thank you for pointing this out!

    Liked by 1 person

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