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Grad student's experience highlights parking accessibility challenges at UNC

Erin Day, a graduate student in UNC's chemistry department, stands in front of her car in a disabled parking lot near Caudill Labs on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. "It's such a complicated path," says Day of her struggle to obtain a disabled parking permit. "It feels like the university at large doesn't want you to get it."

Erin Day, a doctoral candidate in UNC’s chemistry department, contacted UNC parking repeatedly this summer to request a parking permit for a disabled lot. 

In between delayed attempts to acquire a permit, she parked in a small disabled lot near the lab where she was researching. 

One day she came out to her car, on crutches, and noticed a $50 ticket that said she was not allowed to park in a disabled spot without a valid permit. The day that she received her ticket, she had placed her North Carolina handicap placard, and an expired UNC disabled-parking permit, in her passenger seat instead of on the dashboard.

Immediately, Day appealed her ticket via Move UNC’s online portal — writing that the lot she received the ticket in had been empty all summer. 

Her experiences with the UNC Parking Office, University Ombuds and the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office highlight the challenges the University’s disabled community faces in transportation and parking on campus. 

Accessibility obstacles

Day wrote in the appeal that her expired handicap placard still renders her eligible for a disabled permit in future academic years. But the appeal was denied by the parking department, and a $10 late fee was added to the $50 ticket. 

“The rejection of my appeal came in an email with a PDF that had no name, no phone number and no direct email address to contact,” Day said in an email to The Daily Tar Heel. “But it did have an address to mail the check to pay for my ticket.” 

Confused by the situation, Day tried to contact the parking office multiple times, including by phone, email and Twitter.

In an email obtained by the DTH, Day’s attempt to reverse the ticket was responded to by a parking office representative, who instructed her to pay the $60 ticket before she could purchase a disabled parking permit. Day finally decided to call the parking office representative directly. 

“It took like 30 minutes of arguing, and then she realized, ‘Oh that email was vague, it was a misunderstanding between me and you,'” Day said. “So that ticket was wrongfully given.”

To seek further accountability, Day then contacted the University Ombuds and Equal Opportunity and Compliance.

“This is the third time I have had to fight (UNC parking) as a disabled grad student employee,” Day said in an email to the University Ombuds Office. “I hope UNC will log these actions somewhere.” 

A representative from the University Ombuds Office responded to Day. 

“It's good to know that you were able to get the permit and the ticket resolved,” Victoria Dowd, assistant University Ombuds and programs specialist, said. “Have a successful semester.” 

Dawn Osborne-Adams, University Ombuds Office director, said in an email to the DTH that the Ombuds Office could not speak on the specifics of any student who contacts the office. She said the Ombuds Office helps individuals assess and understand reporting options before they formally file complaints with the EOC. 

Dowd said the Ombuds Office does not keep records of student interactions on behalf of the University. 

Day said she emailed UNC’s EOC office asking if it had considered making an email list to provide disabled employees with resources so that it would be easier for disabled employees to access parking. 

Day said her question received no response from UNC’s EOC office. 

“The Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office works diligently to ensure all students, faculty and staff feel represented and heard,” Elizabeth Hall, EOC associate director and Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, said in a statement to the DTH. “Through programs and personalized communications, we work one-on-one to meet the needs of everyone in our community.” 

A familiar situation

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UNC Media Relations said 199 disability permits were assigned to UNC employees, and 1,340 employees met eligibility for P2P/ADA transportation. 

Day said the incident this summer was not her first issue when trying to access disabled parking. In the academic year 2018-19, she obtained parking, but only after appealing the parking office’s decision to deny her a disabled parking permit.

When Day sent in her original application for the permit in fall of 2018, she said she completed the initial steps of UNC’s medical mobility application for UNC community members with impaired mobility. 

In response, the University’s Transportation and Parking Accommodations Committee requested Day’s address. 

“I sent them the address of where I was going to be living, and then they were like, ‘We’ve decided you’re on a bus line, it’s fine, you don’t need this spot,’” Day said. 

But in Day’s 2018 appeal of her permit denial, she explained that the bus routes offered as a solution by the committee did not have a bench, would add more steps to her day and would possibly cause pain due to the surgery she had had the previous summer. 

“Given that the committee contacted me to clarify my address but not my personal mobility challenges, I received the impression that this process values geography more than each disabled student’s and each employee’s necessary accommodations,” Day wrote in her 2018 appeal. 

2020 marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act signed in 1990. 

“The fact that, after this whole situation cleared, no one seemed to express any interest in making it different in the future — that was so frustrating for me,” Day said. “I’ve been disabled my whole life and it’s never been something I could hide … the second you see me, you could spot me on campus: I’m the 4-foot-9 girl with bright crutches.” 

A compliance issue

To Austin Tyner, a chairperson of the Disability Advocates for Carolina committee within the Campus Y, Day’s experience is an unfortunate example of the barriers that UNC students with disabilities face every day when trying to do things besides parking — like accessing certain buildings, or visiting the Old Well.

“It’s a compliance issue,” Tyner said. “Compliance with ADA laws and other things like that are a baseline, and legal requirements you have to meet. But they’re not enough — more is required to meet the needs of disabled students.” 

Elizabeth Myerholtz, an attorney for Disability Rights North Carolina’s Community and Inclusion team, said that, as a public university that also provides housing to students, UNC is responsible for compliance with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. 

“The accessibility laws that we have all emphasize that it really focuses on what someone’s individual needs are,” Myerholtz said. “So it’s not simply enough just to meet the minimums if those minimums aren’t working for a particular person.” 

Myerholtz said that, under the FHA and the ADA, if a particular person needs a space to go beyond ADA and FHA coverage, they can request a “reasonable accommodation.” 

In instances of alleged accessible parking violations, like that of Day’s, Rebecca Williams, the information specialist and technical assistance for the Southeast ADA Center, believes students with disabilities should not have to apply for accessible parking because they most likely already have state-issued handicap placards. 

“The Department of Justice may determine that it is discriminatory to require students with mobility disabilities who have state-issued parking placards to provide additional information or to jump through hoops,” Williams said. 

Williams said that, in order for a possibly discriminatory policy to reach the radar of the Department of Justice, a person with a disability must make an official complaint via the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division or a private lawsuit in civil court. 

“The University’s permit application process is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other relevant laws," UNC Media Relations said in a statement. "The University permits, but does not require, students to submit the documentation they used to support their application for a state-issued parking placard in support of their University application as well.” 

Myerholtz said the key to overcoming barriers in accessibility is being comprehensive when providing access for people with disabilities. 

“When we’re talking about accessibility, we need to be talking about what works holistically and not just meeting a bare minimum,” Myerholtz said. “Let’s not shoot for the bare minimum, let’s shoot to be far more inclusive holistically.”