Laws have changed around parking for disabled Texans over the years. Here’s how it looks today.

Photo above — A car with a disabled veteran license plate sits parked in a disabled parking zone outside the Capitol Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023 in Austin. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

By Neelam Bohra, The Texas Tribune, Sept. 20, 2023

“Laws have changed around parking for disabled Texans over the years. Here’s how it looks today.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

For millions of disabled Texans, accessible parking is vital to navigating daily life.

A lasting impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, the blue signage and crosshatches between spots have become more common than ever. They make it possible for people with a range of disabilities — some visible, some not — to access everything from hospitals and clinics to movie theaters and amusement parks.

In Texas, almost 28% of people have a disability, according to a 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles issued 325,966 permanent ADA placards in 2022, including renewals, according to agency spokesperson Adam Shaivitz.

But some advocates feel the system can still improve, as these spots need to be maintained and available when disabled people need them — even when there are crowds. Advocates also say rules around people without disabilities parking in them need to be enforced better.

“They’re abused a lot,” said Chase Bearden, director of advocacy for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. “They’re a lifeline for those of us who need it. But at the end of the day, we need good enforcement and regulation of those spots.”

Over the years, lawmakers have introduced laws to tweak the system and address these concerns. Here’s everything to know about what parking for disabled Texans looks like today.

What is accessible parking?

These parking spots “must be located on the shortest accessible route to the accessible entrance,” according to federal guidelines.

Building owners have to set aside a certain number of parking spaces for disabled individuals that have a width and length in accordance with federal law. They have to include access aisles, usually marked by crosshatches, so there’s space for people who use wheelchairs to get out of their cars or vans.

“Most people have no idea what the rules are about accessible parking,” Bearden said. “So, they might park at an angle halfway across the crosshatch mark, and not realize that they actually just made the other spot unusable for someone in a power chair that needs to unload.”

A state law passed in 2019 also requires that new spots are clearly designated with a sign marked with the International Symbol of Access, also known as the wheelchair symbol.

Am I eligible for accessible parking?

To qualify for these parking spaces, a person must have a medical condition that meets the state’s legal definition of disability. This can include people who are blind and people with mobility issues caused by a number of conditions, including lung disease or arthritis, according to the state’s DMV website.

Texas also offers temporary placards, which are red, for people who might have broken bones or muscle conditions that they don’t expect to last longer than six months.

If you qualify, you can apply for a placard through your local county tax assessor-collector’s office. A doctor or health care provider has to fill out part of the application.

When applying, you can get a set of blue placards or a license plate with the wheelchair symbol to show this qualification. One of these must be visible when parking in these spots, and has to be used by either the disabled person or the person driving them, according to the website.

How have new Texas laws changed accessible parking?

In 2019, state Sen. Drew Springer, a North Texas Republican, introduced a law to ensure people could recognize an accessible parking spot, requiring multiple signs including the wheelchair symbol and a “no parking” warning for the crosshatches so people wouldn’t park there.

Springer’s wife, Lydia Springer, was in a diving accident more than 20 years ago and uses a wheelchair.

“When my wife now goes to a new building and they’ve got the new sign that says ‘no parking’ on it, it just makes her happy because she knows it’s one fewer place that she’s gonna have to deal with: ‘Is somebody going to squeeze next to my car where there’s literally six inches between and I’ve got a 31-inch wheelchair,’ ” Springer said.

Although advocates worked with Springer to pass that law at the time, it created an unintended consequence. Parking spots that weren’t updated to follow the new rules were considered “out of compliance” with the state because they didn’t have the correct signage. So when officers tried to ticket able-bodied people when they parked in designated spots, the tickets would get dropped and no consequences would follow.

“Judges were dismissing these cases. Therefore, cops weren’t writing any more tickets because they were just getting dismissed,” Springer said.

To fix this loophole, Springer worked this year to pass SB 904, a bill that would ensure people would still receive citations for parking in a disabled parking spot where signage had not been updated. That lack of sign compliance could no longer be used as a defense.

Another separate law in 2021 changed the eligibility of who could use these parking spaces.

Anyone with a disabled veteran’s license plate could park in these spots before 2022, but the law now requires a medical sign-off to either get a placard or wheelchair symbol in addition to their license plate.

Thirty percent of veterans in Texas are disabled, according to a report from Every Texan, a nonprofit that advocates for access.

How are violations of accessible parking laws enforced?

Texans who misuse disabled parking placards or park in spaces without appropriate signs can be fined up to $1,250 and given up to 50 hours of community service, according to the state. Law enforcement officers can also seize a placard they believe to be counterfeit.

But law enforcement doesn’t necessarily catch them all, said Mack Marsh, the project director for Parking Mobility, an Austin-based nonprofit that works to combat accessible parking violations in multiple states. The Parking Mobility app allows people to report offenses they see. The information is then forwarded to the city, which tickets the vehicle.

In 2013, Marsh said he tracked offenses and quickly found they were “everywhere, all the time,” with few consequences. Conversations with law enforcement revealed that judges were dismissing cases because they felt high fines were “punitive,” Marsh said.

As an alternative, Marsh developed a class that educates people “why those spaces are important, teaches them the rules and encourages them not to repeat offend,” Marsh said.

Springer said it still might not be enough.

“Sometimes, people justify in their own mind: ‘I’m running in here for 30 seconds. I’ve been to this parking lot 200 times. I’ve never seen anybody in any of these 10 spots.’ So, they think it’s OK,” Springer said. “But when you repeatedly keep doing that, I think the penalty should look at potentially rising.”

Where can I get more information?

The Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities held a training session on accessible parking earlier this month and you can view it here.

Find the application for a placard or license plate symbol here.

More information from the state’s DMV website can be found here.

Neelam Bohra is a disability reporting fellow, covering accessibility issues affecting Texans. She was a member of the 2022-23 New York Times Fellowship class. Her fellowship is a partnership between The New York Times, The Texas Tribune and the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University. The fellowship is funded through a grant from the Ford Foundation.

Disclosure: Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, Every Texan and New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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