A Tennessee lawmaker says a Channel 4 I-Team investigation is evidence some drivers are abusing disability placards to get prime parking all day at downtown Nashville meters.
"What first comes to mind is disappointment," said State Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory. "What you've captured here on video, there's clear abuses in the system."
The Channel 4 I-Team started looking into the parking situation around state buildings downtown after we got multiple complaints from viewers.
For days, our undercover camera spotted some of the same drivers using disability placards as they parked in metered spots on Polk Avenue, Capitol Boulevard and Rosa Parks Boulevard.
Never once did we see the drivers feed the meter because under state law, disabled drivers can park at meters for free.
While we did see some drivers carrying a cane or others who had trouble walking, we watched as many drivers got out and maneuvered flights of stairs, carried bags and even walked for several minutes at a time in below freezing weather into Tennessee Tower or other surrounding buildings.
It's important to point out that many disabilities are not apparent to the naked eye. We don't know whether or not these drivers have a non-visible disability, like a respiratory issue, for example, because the state says for privacy reasons they can't disclose what a driver's documented disabilities are.
"It has been a struggle for a very long time at the local level, at the state level and it's difficult. As you know, there are people with invisible disabilities, be it a heart condition or asthma, but it's not 100 percent like we're seeing on this video. I didn't see one person in a wheelchair or one person with a walker," Jernigan said.
After we brought our undercover investigation to Jernigan's attention, the lawmaker said he plans to sponsor new legislation this year that he hopes will prevent abuses in the system.
To obtain a placard now, all you have to have is a signed note from your doctor. But you only have to renew that placard every two years, and a doctor's note isn't required for renewals.
Some are concerned because the placards are easily handed off. It's possible someone could even renew a placard that wasn't even theirs, such as from a deceased relative, if they renew by mail.
"You have one or two options. You either have to go to the source, which is the doctors, and have the doctors accountable for what they're doing. They're passing out placards like Aspirin. And it's got to stop," Jernigan said. "Either we're going to have to start charging for meters, which, in that case, means we would have to start making meters accessible for people with disabilities to get to and use, or we're going to just have to get rid of those metered spaces and make them all handicapped spots."
While Jernigan is still working on drafting his new legislation, the non-profit group the Tennessee Disability Coalition will also be looking into what the Channel 4 I-Team found.
Just like Jernigan, advocates for people with disabilities also receive complaints from drivers who believe people are abusing the placard system. That's why they're also working on legislation to address accessibility and abuses.
Emily Hoskins, who is an independent living specialist with the Center for Independent Living in Nashville, also weighed in on our findings.
"It was a little shocking when the shots that pan down the street and multiple cars were in a line with placards," Hoskins said.
She knows first hand about how important it is for people with disabilities to be able to find accessible parking. But, she adds addressing the problem of abuses in the system is a challenge.
"A police officer can't walk up to that person and say, 'Excuse me, what's your disability?' You can't require people to disclose their disability, so I will admit, yes, there are abuses of the system, but I just think it's really had to try to enforce that," Hoskins said.
While Jernigan looks for a legislative solution, there's one thing he believes the public can do.
"Absolutely, you have a voice in your head. You know what it says. It says, 'Don't park there. Someday you are going to need it,'" he said.
Those in charge of issuing disability placards and those who head up downtown parking meters also tell the Channel 4 I-Team they, too, receive complaints from people who believe there are drivers abusing those placards.
Jernigan is currently working with State Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, on the legislation to address disabled parking privileges. The two lawmakers are teaming up with the Disability Law and Advocacy Center of Tennessee to fine-tune the legislation and come up with amendments to the current law that everyone can agree on.
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