My View: Hey, Steve Novick, be careful how you talk about people with disabilities

This is an open letter to city Commissioner Steve Novick:

I am a resident of Portland, and I have an Oregon disability placard. I feel compelled to respond to the comments you made in the article written by Peter Korn (Novick seeks change to disabled parking, Aug. 22).

I take issue with some of your remarks and Mr. Korn’s writing. I also am attaching a photo of my own vehicle, a pretty BMW.

Reading about your own background and the challenging physical disabilities with which you deal, I think we are both likely more qualified than others to make comments and draw conclusions about disabilities, and the use/misuse of “handicap” placards in Portland. I also reviewed the website of the Disability Parking Task Force.

There is sad truth that these placards lead to abuse. I was not aware that displaying one enabled a vehicle to remain in a street parking space all day. Doing so seems egregious. I use my own placard infrequently, opting for my other Portland perk, an “Honored Citizen” TriMet designation, and often use light rail instead.

The determination of disability is medical provider-dependent, as you implied, and universal criteria determining disability status are often subjectively applied. Likely, too many such cards are easily disseminated willy-nilly.

Coupled with misuse, however often, the problem is real and compromises others, and restricts legitimate parking fee collections. There is a need to better standardize and codify the distribution and use of such placards, which is the daunting job before the task force. This is not just Portland’s dilemma. Many returning veterans, often young and with tragic stories, will be affected.

I have an Oregon Veteran Permanent Disability license plate, certified by my physician provider at the Veterans Administration and supplied by the state Driver and Motor Vehicles Division. The VA system is far ahead of the private sector in determination of disability status, in my view, and should serve as a template for others.

As a retired emergency medicine physician, with nearly 40 years in active teaching and practice at a very busy urban facility, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve also done nongovernmental organization medical and surgical work in Asia and East Africa, and was a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era of the early 1970s. I was drafted — one of the few times physicians were forced into military service.

Having been medically discharged four-fifths into my term of service, due to severely compromising skeletal issues and chronic, intractable pain and leg weakness, there’s been a lifetime of challenges, including surgery, with more to come. I still managed to practice successfully for decades, and undoubtedly your own experiences with disability have forced lifetime changes in management.

I recognize and understand your tone and seeming outrage in the article, in particular, how disability is labeled and diagnosed, and how these Oregon handicap cards are administered and used.

But some of your remarks in a mainstream media source included stereotyping and profiling, and I believe they are inappropriate for one in a respected elected political office.

I like BMWs, as maybe other disabled drivers do, and drive the “svelte coupe” type in the attached picture. What others would never know from its outside appearance is that it has a “salvaged/branded title,” having been declared a total loss after a vehicle fire. It was resuscitated and then legally sold to me for considerably less than a used Honda Civic.

Perhaps it is akin to my looking at the skin of patients: Outside packaging may look healthy and pristine, but what is underneath is often the contrary. Drawing erroneous conclusions about cost and circumstance, negatively generalizing BMW drivers in this instance, then going further and sharing such remarks publicly, is wrong and ill founded. It encourages others to generate hostility that may also be ill founded.

Equating the lack of wheelchairs in such vehicles with lack of disability is preposterous. I limp, as you likely do, walk more slowly and deliberately, park closer to destinations, and do not (yet) need a wheelchair, although I’m almost 70.

Are we less disabled?

Stating that BMW drivers “had no money for parking,” even if perhaps you intended a gallows humor comment or whatever you were thinking, is pure rot. If you think such, it should be kept to yourself.

I am personally no less worried about some “soccer mom” (I’m stereotyping) driving a shiny Denali, Escalade or another oversized or overpriced machine — often simultaneously farding (applying cosmetics) and/or texting, seemingly oblivious to any and all around — than to a kid or old fool driving a BMW or similar ilk in a fashion that many legitimately label too fast or inconsiderate. And, many in such vehicles do drive poorly. But, I also think their vehicles are more recognizable, and may receive undue attention from others.

Overall, you have daunting responsibilities in your chosen work and role, and I thank you for commendable public service. Portland is a role model for transportation initiatives and implementation, and your efforts to maintain and improve this fact are noteworthy.

Fred Auerbach, a 13-year Portland resident, hopes the Portland Disability Task Force can arrive at fair, realistic and timely decisions about disability designations and parking placards.

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