Not long ago I was helping the elderly and infirm widow of a former colleague runs some errands, driving her in her car with a handicapped licensed plate to a shopping area in Albuquerque, N.M. There were at least 20 spots for handicapped parking all filled, mainly with autos displaying those badges that hang from the rear view mirror.

We were forced to park a long way from the entrance of the all-purpose store she used for her prescriptions, but she refused to sit in the car saying she needed to talk to the pharmacist personally. As we progressed quite slowly to the store, stopping every few feet to let her rest, we noticed any number of healthy souls walking briskly with their purchases to their cars in the convenient privileged section.

It became obvious that either these people had borrowed someone else’s sticker or had a hidden infirmity that only a doctor could discern. It also seemed obvious — and I have since learned the truth of this — that doctors were handing out these placards for preferential parking to almost anyone who asked for one on grounds they had a bad knee or ankle or sprained wrist or any number of other minor ailments real or imagined. I took the time to check some of the permits and found at least five out of date.

This, of course, isn’t an experience most of us haven’t had as we expend increasingly precious gas looking for some place to land in crowded parking lots. It’s just one of the many situations created by the Americans With Disabilities Act that require more than a little tolerance from those of us blessed enough to be fully ambulatory.

In my office, for instance, the installation of handicapped accessible stalls was mandated immediately after the passage of ADA nearly two decades ago. The cost was not small. To this date, no one with a wheelchair has ever used those restrooms. The problem is small since all of us who aren’t disabled can use them too.

Much of what has been accomplished under ADA has been not only worthwhile but in the best American tradition of trying to make sure that we look after those who are less fortunate. Some of the parking problems are merely the failure of those who own the shopping centers to diligently enforce the penalties for misuse of the handicapped slots. They apparently can’t be bothered.

But now George W. Bush wants to upgrade the law with a 215,000-word proposal that requires only two months publication in the Federal Register before being put into effect. The Justice Department argues that these improvements have been long in coming and reflect the growing number of disabled, many wheelchair bound, returning from Mr. Bush’s war in Iraq. They say 51 million Americans suffer some disability, many severely. By 2010, they say in support of the proposal, two percent of he adult population will be in wheelchairs and four percent will use crutches. Wow!

The cost to the taxpayers of the proposal is estimated at $23 billion but officials contend that this outlay will be offset by the value of public benefits of $54 billion. For the life of me, I can’t understand how those benefits can be measured monetarily. Yes, no one is really willing to risk the wrath of the ADA lobby to do much arguing against this or to say that economically the requirements sometimes don’t seem to make much sense when considering the lack of utilization of current improvements or most likely of future enhancements mandated under the new proposals.

Take one that would require witness stands in courtrooms to be outfitted with lifts or some other way of making them wheelchair-friendly. Most times courts have placed wheelchair-bound witnesses in a position where they can be heard by the jury, the lawyers, and the judge. There is no cost or loss of dignity in this. There are a variety of other new requirements that seem to skate along the edge of common sense and, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are threatening to even the most well -intentioned small businesses because of their complexities.

Americans are generous people and probably won’t complain much, at least not out loud to large groups. So by the fall at least there will be a lot of new construction underway not only in those places like stadiums and ballparks and convention halls but also the smaller venues considered public whether they really are or not.

Personally, I don’t mind walking a few extra steps if the people we’re trying to help actually benefit. I wonder.


(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)

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