ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Linda Ingram has dedicated a good deal of the last decade to monitoring the use of handicapped parking spaces around Albuquerque, calling out people who use the spaces illegally and needling city government to enforce the handicapped parking ordinance.
She is the founder and chief instigator of I Need to Get in My Parking Place, Please! The organization is aptly named (she shortens it to GIMPPP) because it exists to create a world in which a disabled person with a valid handicapped parking placard can drive into any parking lot in America and find a place.
When I expressed surprise that handicapped-parking scofflaws were really that big a problem, Ingram said, “Come with me to Wal-Mart at noon.”
So I did. We climbed into Ingram’s van, and she made sure she had her parking placard with her. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was 13, Ingram has had multiple surgeries and partial amputations on her feet. Walking for her is painful and exhausting.
First, we swung by the Smith’s grocery store at McMahon and Golf Course Road near her home. Two of the handicapped spaces out front were legally occupied, and one was free. We watched a silver Jeep pull into the last open space, the one closest to the door.
A woman wearing jeans and flip-flops hung a handicapped placard on her rearview mirror and jumped out and hustled into the store. Hmm.
Under the law, the placards are reserved for people with a “severe mobility impairment.” That includes people who use a wheelchair and can’t walk without a cane, crutch or brace. But it also includes people with a severe cardiac condition and people who use portable oxygen or have an orthopedic or neurological condition that affects mobility.
So, Ingram has learned in her years of advocacy on behalf of the disabled not to make judgments about whether people are disabled by looking at them. But a glance through the Jeep’s window made it easy to spot a fraud – the photo on the placard was of a young man.
Ingram jumped into her “I Need to Get in My Parking Place, Please!” mode and dialed the police. As she was reporting a violation of the city ordinance – using another’s placard – the woman came out of the store and jumped into her Jeep, rebuffing my efforts to ask her about her parking choice with an unhappy shake of her head. Ingram read off the Jeep’s license plate number to the dispatcher as the woman drove off.
“How’s that?” Ingram asked me. “Our first stop.”
Ingram got her parking placard from the state after her fourth foot surgery around 2000. As soon as she started using it, she began to notice vehicles without placards parked in the blue-marked spaces that were supposed to be reserved for her. From that, her organization was born in 2006.
At the beginning, Ingram, a 60-year-old former licensed practical nurse, approached the drivers of vehicles and asked them whether they knew they were taking a parking space they had no right to.
She doesn’t do that anymore.
“Even people who look nice,” she told me, “are not nice. All I ever got was anger.”
When I think of possible shortcuts in life, occupying a handicapped spot I have no right to in order to save 20 or 30 steps never enters my mind. Who does that?
She sees out-and-out impostors – people without a placard or with a fake placard made on a color copier. She sees expired placards, which are a violation of state law. She sees vehicles with disabled veteran license plates but no placard parked in the spots, also a violation. She sees friends or relatives driving a disabled person on errands, using the placard and leaving the disabled person in the car, which is also a no-no.
Ingram is ever-vigilant and either leaves a bright green “OOPS!” calling card on the windshield – gently spelling out the need for a valid placard to park legally in a handicapped spot – or calls the police.
Robert Perry, the city’s chief administrative officer, said the city has recently changed the way it approaches these parking violators, choosing to enforce the state’s criminal law instead of the city’s civil statute.
Perry said the city’s only recourse unless a violator voluntarily paid the civil fine was to track down the vehicle and boot it. Since March, enforcement officers have been instructed to write a ticket for violating the state law instead. The fines for a violation are hefty. For the first offense it’s $250, and that rises to $350 and $500 for subsequent offenses. And a traffic citation puts a violator into the court system.
“If you ignore something in Metro Court,” Perry said, “a bench warrant can be issued for your arrest. We think it has more of an impact on the violator.”
Ingram has called Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s office consistently and written him letters to ask that the city enforce the ordinance more frequently. The city writes 60 to 90 tickets a month, according to Ingram. Perry said officers have written only 36 of the civil citations in the past six months, and he acknowledged the city could do better in enforcing the handicapped parking laws.
When I commented to Ingram that she’s a persistent nag – and I meant that as a compliment – Ingram agreed.
“I really don’t want to tick people off, but you’ve got to assert yourself because the world is not cooperating on this.”
When we got to Wal-Mart at noon, the place was packed and every handicapped space was taken. A silver sedan had a placard with the date obscured, a common trick of placard fraud. Another sedan had no placard showing.
A man named Peter Allen wheeled up in his motorized chair on the way back to his car as we eyed the white sedan. I asked him if he sees that often.
“All the time,” Allen said. “All the time. Sometimes you gotta park all the way out in left field. One guy, I confronted him and I said, ‘I’m gonna call the cops’ and he said, ‘I am a cop.’ So what are you gonna do? It’s that bad.”
It turned out the white sedan’s driver, Isaac Atencio, had a valid placard – he’d just forgotten to put it out. Elderly and missing an arm, he said he was grateful Ingram was out enforcing the rules.
Ingram suggests that every able-bodied person who ever thinks of grabbing an open handicapped parking space should think ahead to a possible future when that space might legally be theirs.
“We’re the one minority group that everybody’s eligible to join,” she said. “You can’t change your race or your sex, but you can become disabled. It can happen to anybody.”