WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. – Diabetes has settled in Ira Monatlik’s body, enough to weaken the muscles around his eyes.
He has a pacemaker, and lately, his left leg aches because of a split disc.
But none of those ailments stop the former tennis instructor and athlete from driving his Mercedes to doctor appointments or for errands around town.
What does stop him is a lack of parking spots for the disabled.
“Children who have parents with placards, they are the ones that are using the parking spaces,” said Monatlik, 62. “These are people in their 30s and 40s in all kinds of cars, who are completely healthy.”
Whether because of cheaters or just more unhealthy Californians, those blue disabled placards have increased 75 percent statewide since 2001 – from 1.3 million to 2.3 million last year, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The reasons for the surge vary: an increase in older drivers, recent changes in legislation, more awareness on how to get them.
“There are a whole host of reasons,” said Steve Haskins, a DMV spokesman. “The silver tsunami is coming, which is older drivers with health problems. Part of that is driven by the fact that baby boomers are going to start turning 65 in 2011.”
In 1990, there were 2 million licenses held by those 65 and older. By 2010, there will be nearly 3 million. The DMV estimates that by 2020, there will be 4 million drivers 65 and older.
But Haskins also speculated that Californians are simply unhealthy.
Officials with the California Department of Public Health have said that the state’s residents have gained 360 million pounds of excess weight in the past 10 years, and one-third of children, one in four teens and more than half of all adults are overweight or obese.
Weight alone doesn’t justify a placard, but diabetes and other illnesses that emerge as a result of obesity could be a contributing factor, Haskins and others said.
At least 2 million people in California have diabetes. It can cause some vision loss as well as circulation and nerve damage in the feet, which can lead to amputations.
The DMV uses four criteria to define “disabled” – loss of limbs, some visual issues, forms of lung disease, and cardiovascular disease.
Though physicians have the authority to help a patient apply for a placard, a state bill that passed last year expanded that authority to nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives and physician assistants.
That can be both good and bad, said Laura Williams, president of Californians for Disability Rights Inc.
“We absolutely support every person who needs a placard to have one, but every person with a disability does not meet the definition for the person needing a placard,” Williams said.
Physicians and others are authorizing placards willy- nilly, she added. The result: parking space hoarding.
“If a person can walk 200 feet with assistance such as with a cane or walker, then they do not qualify,” she said. “What we have found is that our medical professionals would hand out the placards and were not trained for what the eligibility rules are. They give them to seniors just as a rite of passage, and that’s wrong. There’s no penalties for the doctors who give them out badly.”
But some physicians also can be pressured. Most doctors rely on their own judgment because they want their patients to feel better and recover, said Dr. Glenna Tolbert, who has a practice in Encino that specializes in physical medicine, Rehabilitation and spinal cord injury.
The number of people with what she calls “Functional limitations,” are increasing, she said.
“People are always pressuring you to get placards,” she said. “There’s a lack of standardization.”
But Williams said abuse runs rampant, especially among those “stealing their grannies’ placards.”
“In Sacramento, when I roll around the downtown area, I notice 80 to 90 percent of the cars parked have placards,” she said. “Our employment figures in the disability community remain dismal, but if you look around Sacramento, you would think every one of us (with disabilities) is employed there.”
And it happens in Los Angeles, especially in the garment district downtown, said Deputy Chief Rudy Carrasco, who heads a small specialized unit within the Los Angeles Department of Transportation that deals with the misuse of placards.
The number of citations for placard abuse has doubled: from 20 in fiscal year 2006-07, to 49 in 2007-08, though the outcomes of those citations are unclear. A citation for misuse of a placard is $340.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase” in misuse, Carrasco said.
Through surveillance and other tactics, the unit can spot motorists who might be abusing a placard. Disabled drivers hold special identification cards that justify theirs.
“In most cases, people come clean” after being caught, Carrasco said. “They realize that we’ve got them. We do it in a manner that is not confrontational, but we tell them these placards are issued with good reason.”
From the Los Angeles Daily News