Saturday, August 22, 2009

Arizona man fights for enforcement of disabled parking laws

From The Arizona Republic:

Ed Mitchell (pictured) is used to seeing people park illegally in disabled parking spaces or watching delivery trucks block such spaces.

He chalked up the inconvenience as part of life for people with a disability.

But after months of lobbying Tempe City Hall, Mitchell's fight for enforcement of laws to protect people with disabilities could result in changes to city code that would get tougher on those who choose to break those laws.

Knee and hip-replacement surgery have left Mitchell with a disability that makes it painful to walk long distances. His mother was born with a birth defect that has made mobility difficult most of her life. She is now in an automated wheelchair.

They both have placards that allow them access to disabled parking.

But some people without a disability who see the spaces as conveniently close to places where they want to run errands or seek entertainment think it's OK to park in disabled spaces. As a result, they are making life difficult for those in their community who live with disabilities, he said.

Earlier this year, Mitchell got fed up.

His frustration came to a head after a few trips to City Hall. The disabled parking spaces next to the government building were also adjacent to several popular downtown Tempe bars and restaurants.

"You see (delivery trucks) consistently blocking accessible spaces and the area around the spaces," he said. "People in wheelchairs with ramps on their cars need aisle areas around the spaces clear. My mother can't get out of her van when someone blocks that. It was ridiculous."

Mitchell starting researching the law and found it does not cover blocking disabled spaces.

"It was crazy that it's not OK to park in (disabled parking) but it's OK to keep everyone who needs it out of it?" he asked.

City Hall is where Tempe residents come to handle tax or property issues, seek business opportunities or attend a council or commission meeting.

Blocking access to a place where the community can meet with their elected officials was unacceptable, Mitchell said.

Mitchell logged days that he saw the spaces blocked and took pictures, too. Calls to City Hall about the problem resulted in Mitchell being referred to Karl Stephens, Tempe's Americans with Disabilities Act compliance specialist. That's when he found out that the very person who could help him understand the city's enforcement plan was facing the loss of his job.

As Tempe faced a $34.5 million budget deficit and Stephens' position was one of several being considered for elimination to reduce payroll costs.

In March, Mitchell took his concerns to the City Council.

Speaking during a council meeting public-comment period, Mitchell highlighted the problem with blocking disabled parking spaces. He also reminded the council that in 2004 the council accepted recommendations made by a Tempe task force on disability issues, which included a key recommendation to hire a full-time ADA compliance specialist.

In 2005, Tempe filled the job part-time.

"The recommendation was for full time. We settled on part time. Now we're looking at no time," Mitchell told the council.

Now, nearly six months later, Mitchell applauds Tempe's actions to protect the rights of people who have a disability.

The city kept Stephens part-time.

And on Thursday, the council reviewed a series of code changes that will make it illegal in Tempe to block disabled parking spaces and the area around such spaces.

The city is also increasing the fine for parking in such spaces.

Stephens praises Mitchell for his advocacy.

"He literally put in hundreds of hours on this," he said. "He didn't just complain. He helped the city research changes."

The code changes come as Tempe has released its latest "Access Tempe" pamphlet, a disability-resource guide.

The book is full of resources which include Tempe businesses and hotels that have disability accommodations.

"Tempe is becoming known nationally as a city that is proactive about ensuring accessibility. While that's the right thing to do . . . it's also good from an economic standpoint," said Nancy Black, Tempe Tourism Development manager with the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is a co-sponsor of the pamphlet.