Disabled Parking Qualifying Conditions: Why Do They Vary State-to-State?

Dr Handicap - map

Disabled parking is recognized all over the world, in almost every country you could care to visit. Disabilities can strike anyone, and handicapped people will always need some form of assistance. In the case of a handicap parking space, it can provide a major boost to the disabled person’s day to day life. Many of us take parking for granted – if we can’t find a space, and have to park further away from our destination, it’s an annoyance at worst. But for some disabled people, it can literally be the difference between living a full life by being able to get where they need to go, or missing out because of their disability, whatever form it may take. The specific type of disability is especially important when a patient is procuring a disabled parking permit. These are known as qualifying conditions, and they vary state-to-state.

Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have a federal law in place for disabled parking, meaning that it is up to each state’s government to decide their own laws. There is a blanket handicap law, known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA for short), which was established in 1990 as an upgrade of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and affords disabled people all over the country with protection against discrimination. And it’s not just disabled people, either; the ADA makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone because of race, religion, sex, and other defining characteristics. While this in an extremely valuable law that provides a cornerstone of fair treatment in the U.S., it says nothing about disabled parking. That’s left up to each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to decide.

Dr Handicap - disabled parking sign on wall

The DMV is an important part of any state’s operations. It’s a state-level government agency that administers vehicle registrations and licenses to drivers. They’re not always known as DMVs in all fifty states, but each one will have some variation on the name (e.g. the Motor Vehicle Division in Montana, or the Driver Services Program in Wyoming). Although they appear under different names, they do in fact provide the same service as DMVs, and are the place for all drivers to procure their licenses. (It’s also worth noting that Hawaii is the only state not to have a DMV-type body with statewide jurisdiction; instead, local governments handle the issuing.) This is the reason why each state has different qualifying conditions for disabled applicants; each respective DMV is in charge of their specific jurisdiction with regards handing out licenses. In the case of handicap parking permits, they are in essence another form of license, which means they have to be handled through the appropriate and established channels.

Fortunately for disabled drivers and passengers, the list of qualifying conditions does not vary hugely from state to state.  A few are more liberal than others – for example, New York has recently introduced a mental health clause in their DMV procedures, which is technically classed as a disability in some cases. This kind of liberal expansion of the qualifying conditions is likely to be adapted over the coming years by other states, as the stigma around mental health issues continues to erode. In terms of “traditional” disabilities, however, most states have similar remits. Here are some general clauses that will qualify a patient for a disabled parking permit in the vast majority of states:

  • If the applicant doesn’t have the use of one or both arms;
  • If they can’t walk a set number of feet (usually 100, sometimes 50 or 200) without stopping to rest;
  • If they can’t walk without using an aid like a cane or crutch;
  • If they have a Class III or Class IV cardiac condition as outlined by the American Heart Association;
  • If they require portable oxygen to walk; or
  • If they are limited in their vision to some degree (usually a visual acuity of 20/200 or less without correcting lenses).
Dr Handicap - disabled parking space

On top of these basic qualifications, each state will have a different variation of additions to the list. A patient’s next step after consulting with their health care professional should be to check with their local DMV and see if their condition is listed and applicable for a handicap parking permit. Almost all states have two types of disability placard or plates: a permanent one and a temporary one. Depending on the nature of your disability, you will opt for one or the other.

The entire application process is very simple, and doesn’t particularly vary state-to-state. All applications are lodged with the respective DMV, and must include a certified description of the disability in question by a registered health care professional. Once you receive your placard, make sure to always keep it with you, and don’t lend it to anyone else, or let anyone else park in a space when you’re not present. No matter the state, the penalties for breaking that particular law can be quite severe!