By Julie Thompson
Brad Parish, 32, climbed out of his car and into a wheelchair as he prepared to head towards the atrium, but something caught his attention and he wheeled in the opposite direction. “This will just take a minute, “ he said, approaching a car with three occupants. “Hello, I’m a student who has been involved in regulating the handicap parking issue here on campus. A group of us do what we can to make sure that healthy people aren’t taking the stop spots from the students who really need them. To whom is the handicap tag issued?“
The driver quickly replied that he was issued a handicap license plate, because he is easily fatigued by walking short distances. “No problem. You have every right to park here. I’m just trying to make sure that people like you, who these spots are intended for, actually get to park here,” Parish said. The car’s occupants then expressed their appreciation for what Parish was doing. They too had seen perfectly healthy people park in spots reserved for the disabled. Parish claims to be a ‘pro’ at spotting when someone misuses a handicap tag. “People will put their permit on the dash instead of hanging it on the rear view. I put mine on the rearview; it never comes off. For most disabled people, it’s the same way, but if you see someone putting there’s on the dash, nine times out of 10 they shouldn’t be parking there.”
While Parish is an advocate for handicap rights, he wasn’t always in a wheelchair. “I had a car accident when I was drinking and driving when I was 18 years old,” he said. It was on Sept. 28, 2002, 11 days before his 19th birthday. He was thrown out of the passenger window, shattering two vertebrae and breaking his spinal cord. The accident left Parish paralyzed from the waist down. Parish had spent the day with his best friend, Bryan — the two grew up in a neighborhood “not far away from here,” he said with a lilting tone, as if he were reading the beginning of a fairytale.
“We should have stayed where we were, we were safe,” but when a girl he knew called and flirtatiously invited him to a party, the two drove from Alpharetta all the way to an address near Lake Lanier. “It was a really long way,” Parish recalled. At the party, they played drinking games. When Parish got into a fight with his lady friend, he left the scene without a second thought. “Instead of going towards Gwinnett County, I went towards Hall county,” Parish said. He made his way to Peachtree Industrial to go home, but then made a wrong turn.
A house on the second corner was the site of the accident. Guard rails now line its corner. “I’m pretty sure they would have prevented me from getting hurt as bad, but in hindsight, it’s really a 20/20, so I don’t let that bother me very much.” Thinking about what could have been is a waste of time, Parish realizes. The fact is, Sept. 28, 2002, was an overcast, foggy night; it was ‘sprinkling off and on’ and the intoxicated eighteen- year old was driving a long road that made serpentine curves. As Parish recalls, the road was ‘out in the sticks,’ and with few landmarks. He isn’t sure what happened next. “I’m guessing I fell asleep at the wheel and lost control at the corner,” said Parish.
The car flipped, and he was thrown to of the passenger window. “The first ten years were like hell, but the last two have been great.” A year and a half ago, Parish met his fiancee, Lauren, when she moved in next door. Meeting Lauren led Parish to GGC. “If we’re going to spend our life together, I’ve got to take care of her,” he said.
During his first semester at GGC, Parish noticed robust students parking in handicap spots and then hiking to class, but he didn’t do anything about it until he saw something he couldn’t ignore. It was a rainy day during the first month of the fall semester. Parish saw a girl with a mental and physical disability that required her to use a walker. Her mother was escorting her to a class in the C building and all the spots in the executive lot were full. They had to park on the far side of the staff parking lot. The scene was so pathetic, it made the thirty-two year old man cry. Something had to be done.
He immediately emailed the president; shortly after parking services got involved. 50 to 100 people misuse their handicap parking tags each day, Parish estimates. Parish’s concern is that some people have a temporary disability — one that lasts only a few months — but their tag allows them to continue filling handicap spots even when they are healed. He mentioned telltale signs that someone is misusing a tag. If the tag is turned over, it is probably expired, and the user is no longer disabled.
Red tags catch Parish’s attention. A red tag is issued to individuals with a temporary disability, and gives them access to handicap parking for six months. There are 3,370 students parking spots, but only 124 reserved for GGC’s handicapped students. Fifteen of the 488 students registered with Disability Services have motor-related disabilities, but is hard to determine how many students actually need these spots as the school does not require students to register their disability, and Disability Services doesn’t track how many students have handicap tags — that’s the state’s job. Since April of this year, 1, 715 red tags have been issued in Gwinnett area, according to Deborah Stroup from the Tax Commissioner’s Office.
In contrast, the Department of Motor Vehicles has issued 5,760 blue tags, which provides a four-year handicap parking access. Parish’s group has brainstormed alternative solutions to handicap parking issues. One idea Parish proposed was to create a special permit that reserves the spots nearest the door for students who have the greatest need. The handicap decal could have a catchy name, Parish proposed. The plan would potentially eliminate the likelihood that a person who looks fine, but is in fact disabled will be harassed.
Police Captain Michael Irizarry who works with Parking Services trained Parish’s group on how to approach parking violators. Irizarry’s method of compliance is to give warnings, so as to educate the students who made an honest mistake. “We try to educate some of the students and let them know, ‘Hey just because you have a placard or a vehicle handicap tag doesn’t mean that you can park in a handicap space,’ and for the most part students do not know,“ said the policeman. The violation is typically self-correcting — most students won’t touch a handicap parking space with a 10-foot pole when they learn they can be fined up to $500 for doing so.
The state offers guidelines to avoid parking dilemmas. One out of every six accessible parking spaces must be van-accessible, so that in a parking lot with 400 total spaces, eight must be accessible spaces, and two of these must be van-accessible, according to the Americans with Disability website. The Department of Justice recently revised the ADA Title II and Title III regulations for Places of Public Accommodation — the amendments went into effect this spring. The Program Access portion of Title II orders that any government facility must ensure that people with disabilities can gain access to participate in programs and activities.
“There are a variety of ways that agencies can ensure access to programs, but making structural improvements is often necessary.” (ADA Title II) Officer Schneider spoke for the school when he said “We meet all the state and federal requirements.” While the law requires that schools accommodate disabled students to the maximum extent feasible, some have higher expectations of GGC. “You’d think a school as newly built as ours would already have worked out all the accessibility kinks, but unfortunately that is not the case,” said Julie McMillan, 22 — an English major with a film minor. Some accessibility issues do not have clear solutions.
McMillan needs an electric ramp to exit her vehicle, and this requires more space for her van — and van spots are as sparse. She has been late to class on more than one occasion because she can’t find a van spot. When McMillian does manage to park, lower her ramp, and begin navigating her way to class, she has trouble finding an accessible path.
“I avoid parts of campus because I just don’t know if there will be a ramp or crosswalk at the other end,” she said. Her chief complaint is that there are not enough ramps on the sidewalks; this forces her to wheel along the road in search of a ramp and it can be quite dangerous.
“Because there’s not a constant sidewalk, I often times have to stroll in the road until I find a ramp, which really is pretty terrifying when cars pass you maniacally,” said McMillian. She avoids taking classes in the A building, where the sidewalk is interrupted and does not run around the entire building, and ramps are few and far between.
The solution is dependent on time and money, like so many other things in life. Captain Irizarry is limited in what he can do, so Parish and other students must offer their own time to enforce parking regulations. As for accessibility issues with the school itself — solutions will require both time and money, but first students must create an awareness that there is an issue to begin with. “It’s so important for students to let their voices be known, because the school will only listen [to Disabilities Services] if we make complaints ourselves,” said Mcmillian.