Safety liaison volunteers with Portland’s Disabled Parking Enforcement Unit
Tiana Tozer is the Oregon Department of Transportation’s safety liaison for the busy Portland metropolitan office. She spends her days focused on one objective: improve safety on our roads.It’s important to her for several reasons, but one that she can never forget occurred when she was just 20 years old: she became disabled when a drunk driver ran a stop sign.
Once she got past the immediate surgeries, she embarked on a life of educating people about being safe when you are using the transportation system, whether you are driving, riding, rolling or walking. She also educates people – through her volunteer work – that disabled parking permits are critical for people with disabilities.
Recently, a TV news report featured the work Tozer and five other volunteers do with Portland’s Disabled Parking Enforcement Unit. In 2021, those volunteers spent 2,390 hours on patrol, issuing 1,020 citations, 84 warnings and checking 55,841 permits. We asked Tozer about her experience.
Why do you volunteer for the DPEU?
Tozer: I became disabled at age 20, when a drunk driver ran a stop sign. I spent four years using a wheelchair while having surgeries and going through physical therapy to learn to walk again. However, even after I could walk again, I was restricted to short distances (I was too young for joint replacements) and I used a wheelchair for long distances for 15 more years. I have first-hand experience not being able to park because there wasn’t enough room to get my chair out of the car, having to wait for someone who blocked the aisle to come back because I couldn’t get in the car, struggling with an awkward transfer into a skinny toilet stall because some able-bodied person is in the disabled stall. And after I was walking again and playing wheelchair basketball, I had to carry teammates to the bathroom on planes or help them into an inaccessible stall or back their car out the spot, or drop them off in their wheelchair with my wheelchair, park the car and then join them. Disabled parking spots are a key part of the mobility and accessibility equation that helps people with disabilities be independent.
The second reason I volunteer is because of my work. Every day in Oregon people become disabled on our roads; we are the fastest growing minority. When I feel overwhelmed by the traffic violence or I feel helpless, I can patrol and I know that by helping ensure these spaces are used correctly that I’m helping people who have been victims of traffic violence regain their independence.
How important is it to make sure those spots are reserved for people with disabilities?
Tozer: Extremely. Independence is hard won for people with disabilities, particularly for people who use mobility devices. Everything takes longer when you have a mobility impairment. Let’s say someone who uses an electric wheelchair and has a van with a ramp has planned out their day and they find an accessible parking space, get their shopping done and then someone parks in the aisle and they have to wait for 30 minutes maybe an hour for that person to come back and they missed an appointment, are late back to work, their entire day is thrown off because someone, whose body is operational, decided to be inconsiderate. Or perhaps it’s an elderly person who uses a walker or has a heart condition and they can only walk so far; the disabledspot is taken so they can’t do their grocery shopping because the walk from the far end of the parking lot is too much.
What kind of reception do you usually get when you talk with someone who is using the spot but doesn’t have a permit?
Tozer: The program is educational so if I have the opportunity to speak to someone and they are receptive I’m usually not ticketing them. Reactions are all over the board; some people are extremely apologetic. I hear a ton of excuses, e.g. I hurt my finger, I forgot my placard, it’s in the other car – and people get angry. One woman who I gave a warning too, called me every name in the book, filmed me and chased me across the parking lot screaming, “What’s your DPSST number?” Now I take my photographic evidence before I approach the car so I have the option to ticket if someone is unwilling to be educated. The reactions are very telling because people who are disabled will see you looking at their placard and offer to show you their license. Placards are assigned to people in Oregon and have the last four digits of the disabled person’s license or ID.
I see a lot of abuse: people using their family members placards, people who have a disabled placard using the wheelchair user only, expired permits, expired temporaries and permits that have been altered, which is termed an invalid permit. I ran across a permit that had expired in 2011, but the written date had been changed to 2021; that is a $460 fine and that one was especially gratifying to write.
For me, people illegally using disabled spaces is disrespectful to people with disabilities. No one wants to be disabled, but they want to be able to park in those spots, and people with disabilities have lost some privileges because of abuse by able-bodied people. For example, you used to be able to park in downtown Portland for free with your disabled placard, but there was so much abuse you now have to pay. At Disneyland people in wheelchairs used to be able to skip the lines, often times because the front entrance wasn’t accessible, but rich Moms started hiring people with disabilities to go to Disneyland with them and now that is gone.
People with disabilities have often been through a lot with their bodies. Right after my crash I spent a month and three days in ICU and three months in the hospital. In 2.5 years I’d had 34 reconstructive surgeries, and I endured physical therapy three times a week. To date I’ve had 36 reconstructive surgeries. If your body operates the way it was intended to, it is perfect and people should be glad that they don’t need a disabled placard or that spot. As a person with a disability I would gladly give up my “privilege” for an operational body.