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When a Colleague Takes a Parking Space for People With Disabilities

By Rob Walker

May 4, 2018

Send your workplace conundrums to, including your name and contact information (even if you want it withheld). The Workologist is a guy with well-intentioned opinions, not a professional career adviser. Letters may be edited.

At my office, there are two employees who park in parking spaces for people with disabilities on a daily basis. Both have placards hanging from their rearview mirrors.
One of the employees has revealed that the placard is for his daughter, but he uses it all the time, even when she isn’t with him. The other employee doesn’t appear to be disabled in any visible way, and talk around the office is that he abuses a space, too.
Both employees work in the same department. Is it fair to bring this matter to their boss’s attention? D.C.

The two cases you describe are actually distinct in important ways. I’ll address the latter first. Reporting a colleague to management based on unproven office scuttlebutt is rarely a good idea, and seems particularly inadvisable here. Just because someone doesn’t appear to have a disability doesn’t mean he or she might not qualify for a disabled parking permit.

At the federal level, the Americans with Disabilities Act sets a baseline for the availability of these spaces, and the Department of Transportation’s Uniform System for Parking for Persons with Disabilities lays out basic rules for who is eligible to use them, according to Rabia Belt, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School who focuses on disability and citizenship.

Certain cardiac, respiratory, arthritic or neurological conditions that limit someone’s mobility or ability to walk — even if they do so in ways that aren’t immediately visible — can easily qualify. (There could be additional qualifying conditions under state laws.)

Ms. Belt points out that an unfounded suspicion that lots of people take advantage of disability benefits by “faking it” is not uncommon. In fact, one of her graduate students is studying perceptions of “disability cons” for his dissertation.

“This can be a really big problem for people who do have disabilities,” Ms. Belt says. People with legitimate but not immediately visible disabilities get accusatory notes left on their cars, or are conspicuously photographed by apparently suspicious strangers in parking lots. And, she adds: “They have to deal with this gossip behind their back.”

In short, if you don’t actually know whether this colleague is misusing a permit, I’d say leave it alone.

But what about your colleague who, apparently, openly admits to a disability con? Well, if true, he’s definitely a jerk, and should be ashamed of himself. How would he feel if he took his daughter somewhere and couldn’t get the parking space she needed because all the spots for people with disabilities were taken up by cheaters like him?

Still, if you want to bring this to management’s attention, frame it as a management issue. Let's say you yourself have a disability, and can't use your space because of this guy. In that case, you should absolutely take action. Or if you believe other employees or visitors are similarly denied a space they deserve, that is also an issue management should legitimately want to know about.

Of course, you can also point this behavior out to the bosses because it just feels wrong and offensive: Even if he has never denied someone a space, he could, and that’s enough.

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