Law, safety, courtesy say leave handicap space

David Wilson shows how little room there is to use his wheelchair lift between parking spaces. A sticker on the van tells motorists to leave space, but it is often ignored, he said.

David Wilson has worked hard to live independently after a bad dive into a swimming pool put him in a wheelchair 22 years ago.

But almost once a week he finds himself with no choice but to wait for an able-bodied person's assistance -- sometimes for hours.

Wilson drives a van with a wheelchair lift that gets him in and out. A sticker on the side of the van warns motorists not to park too close because the lift needs about eight feet of clearance.

Wilson regularly finds his lift blocked, though, when he returns to his van. If he's at a restaurant, he can try to find the driver who blocked his lift; if it's at the mall, he's usually in for a long wait.

"I don't take it to heart," said Wilson, a patient advocate at Walton Options for Independent Living.

There are some choice things he would like to tell people who abuse or obstruct handicap parking, "but I don't talk like that," Wilson said.

Common courtesy would dictate that people without disabilities not park in a spot reserved for people who rely on wheelchairs and walkers to get around.

If that's not a strong enough reason, think safety.

Most handicap parking spots are close to store entrances, not just for easy access but also to minimize how far people in a wheelchair have to travel through a parking lot.

Motorists have a hard time seeing the low profile of a person sitting in a wheelchair, especially as they back up a vehicle.

"There's nothing more dangerous than a parking lot," said Tim Hollobaugh, who has limited mobility because of Lyme disease.

Hollobaugh is working closely with City Administrator Fred Russell to improve handicap parking in Augusta, particularly downtown. The curbs downtown are lowered near handicap spots to allow the disabled to wheel onto the sidewalk.

When all of the spots are taken, a downtown visitor must wheel into the street to find the next closest ramp, Hollobaugh said. That's dangerous for both motorists and the person in the wheelchair.

"We can't jump out of the way," he said.

Hollobaugh saw a woman in a motorized wheelchair get hit by a car when he lived in California. The 500-pound chair rolled several times on the woman and killed her, he said.

On a more personal level, Hollobaugh's wife, Shirley, had her foot run over by a delivery van as she crossed the street in her wheelchair.

The bottom line is that few disabled people bring their dollars downtown because there isn't anywhere to park, Hollobaugh said.

Robbie Breshears, the community services coordinator for Walton Options for Independent Living, said most people with disabilities want to be treated the same as the rest of the society.

Handicap parking is not special treatment but a boost toward personal independence, said Breshears, who was born with cerebral palsy.

People who abuse handicap parking drive Breshears "crazy."

"They should look at their life and be fortunate that they don't really have to use those spaces," he said.