By That’s My Spot

 

Universally recognisable, the symbol of a wheelchair has become the face of accessible parking bays. Yet, it might actually be counterproductive to the cause. Why? The international symbol of access upholds a long withstanding misconception about people who require accessible parking: that their disabilities are always physical and thus visible.

 

The fact is that an overwhelming majority (namely 9 out of 10 disabilities) are what has been referred to as “invisible disabilities”. Such disabilities are not physically visible or apparent at first glance. There are a plethora of reasons a person might qualify for an accessible parking permit to decrease the distance they need to walk or increase the space around their vehicle when disembarking. The obvious reason is if someone faces mobility issues, but there are a vast range of others. Physical, psychological, cardiovascular, muscular, pulmonary, orthopaedic, and emotional conditions are just part of an informed view of disabilities, that would help the public at large understand why some people with parking permits seem to step out of their vehicles ostensibly “just fine”. The awful verbal abuse and harassment that arises from this misconception has appeared in the news time and time again for perfectly legal disability parking permit users whose disabilities are not immediately apparent – people with conditions such as fibromyalgia  or multiple sclerosis.

 

A shift in the public’s perception would go a long way towards ending the social policing that plagues the thousands of Australians simply trying to go about their lives in a manner that keeps them safe and their bodies healthy. Disabled parking permit holders have already demonstrated their validity to the relevant institutions – they absolutely do not need to prove it to anyone else.

 

And yet, despite the pivotal role it plays in many people’s lives, accessible parking remains a hot topic. The provision of privileged parking bays has often been viewed as contentious, even more so when the impression creeps in that the user of such a parking bay “is not actually disabled”, or “is not disabled enough”. These harmful trains of thought are rooted in the prejudice that if a person has a significant disability, that disability would be physical and thus visible, and it’s possible the universal symbol of access only further entrenches this belief.

 

Does society’s opinion on disabled parking even matter? Well, it is worth noting that the first and foremost priority listed by the NSW Disability Inclusion Action Plan is not to increase funding or amend existing laws, although those factor. The very first priority listed is: “Developing positive community attitudes and behaviours.” This action plan was created in conjunction with the affected communities and highlights how important this social attitude is towards ensuring accessible, inclusive cities are in fact manifestly accessible.

 

None of this is to say that there aren’t significant numbers of people without a disability “abusing” disability parking (in fact, this is a huge issue for councils in Australia, who issue an average of 15 000 fines out to accessible parking abusers each year in NSW alone). From parking permits being lent to friends and family, to motorists who steal into disability bays without regard, the issue of misused disability bays is voluminous and not going away anytime soon. Perhaps part of combatting the perception that disabled parking bays are routinely abused may lie in curbing the actual rate of offending. Reducing the opportunities to misuse accessible parking bays benefits both valid disability parking permit holders as well as the perception of the “fairness” of accessible parking in general. Often fair use of accessible parking is enforced through secondary screening systems, such as the provision of photo ID or the installation of parking bollards to physically block users without a remote. Programs are adapting all the time to combat disability parking permit offenders, and they will continue to evolve to do so.

 

While well-intentioned and innocuous at first, is the international symbol of access contributing to the problematic presumptions dogging disability parking permit holders? It certainly underrepresents them.