Tailgaters vs. people with disabilities: A game-day battle

| September 18, 2012

University of Nebraska Cornhuskers team on game day.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is facing charges that handicapped parking was rented to donors on Cornhuskers’ game days (photo by Kent Sievers, The Omaha World-Herald).

9/18/12 — Whether it’s the NFL or a local university or high school, the most hotly contested showdown this fall might be tailgaters v. people with disabilities.

On game day, the parking lots are often overcrowded, the illegal parking is plentiful, and people with valid handicapped parking permits – and valid disabilities – often have to compete with tailgaters and other fans to gain access to the spacious, prime parking spots.

While it’s fair to assume this tension has existed since the Americans with Disabilities Act required public, commercial and government establishments to create the accessible spaces, the issue is in the spotlight this month. As football season gets underway, one university comes under fire for blatantly violating the requirement.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is being sued for allegedly “renting” handicapped parking stalls to donors for tailgating.

Handicapped parking only sign, fine minimum $250.

While parking in a handicap parking spot without a valid permit will elicit a fine, a Nebraska man with disabilities was told he’d have to pay to park further away from a sports stadium .

Richard Norton, Jr., who has birth defects that make it difficult to walk, claims he was not allowed to park in a disabled parking spot at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln during a game day in October 2010. Instead, he was directed to park at another lot further away – and to pay $15 for the spot.

According to the lawsuit filed Sept. 13, Norton filed a complaint about the situation last year with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education. The university acknowledged the violation in a letter to the Civil Rights office in April, and promised to fix it by Sept. 1, but Norton claims the school failed to do so.

But this isn’t the only case in which school administrators have faced criticism for redirecting game-day handicap parking.

Reserved football parking for tailgaters with disabilities, University of Texas at El Paso.

University of Texas at El Paso football fans who have disabilities are happy to again have reserved parking near the stadium (photo via KFOX14 News).

With expanding attendance and a new parking garage, earlier this month administrators at the University of Texas at El Paso opened a lot next to the stadium that previously had been reserved for accessible parking. This meant that people with disabilities who couldn’t find a spot in this lot would have to park in the garage and catch a shuttle to the stadium, just like everyone else.

They didn’t have to wait long for the objections from people with disabilities to come pouring in, and the school quickly reversed its decision.

Most game-day disabled parking problems, however, are individual violations, often by early-bird tailgaters who perhaps – in their excitement of landing a prime spot – miss the “Reserved Parking” sign posted at the top of the parking spot or the international symbol of accessibility painted on the asphalt.

There’s the access area that allows for extra elbow room, and plenty of space to set up the grill, corn hole game and tables, unpack the camp chairs and coolers and maybe even put up a portable gazebo. And the proximity to the stadium and sidewalks – accessible parking must be located “on the shortest accessible route” to a given destination – provides a constant stream of fellow fans and a shorter walk to the game.

Tailgaters grill before a Cornhuskers game.

Prime parking is a prized by many tailgaters (photo via tallahasseegrapevine.com).

Many cities and schools are going beyond the signage to try to crack down on these violations.

The University of Oregon’s athletic department, for example, reminded all the football fans that “Vehicles eligible to utilize the disabled parking areas not only will be required to display the mandatory disabled parking placards, proper identification from the individual who has registered the disabled parking placard also will be required.”

Earlier this month, officials in Bluefield, West Virginia set up a “fan zone” for tailgating activities before a cross-town rivalry game between Bluefield High School and Graham High School. The space is intended to reduce disabled parking violations as well as create a more family-friendly space.

– A.H. Hirt

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