Handicap parking permits: Who can use them and how

Pregnant women? Out-of-state handicapped drivers? Invisible disabilities? Who can use a handicap parking permit, and what are the rules we ALL need to know?

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Susan Meyer

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Ross Martin

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Handicap parking permits explained

It’s a familiar sight everywhere across the country: a blue and white wheelchair symbol designating handicap parking spaces. Only people who possess valid state-issued parking permits may use these spaces. We all agree on that, right? Those handicap parking permits and spaces are designated for people who need them – not people who believe themselves deserving of preferred parking spaces.

However, there is actually a wide variety of reasons someone might need a handicap parking permit. And because there’s so much confusion, we’re taking a deeper look into who qualifies for these permits, where they work, and how to get them.

How do handicap parking permits work?

Millions of Americans have physical disabilities or health concerns that make it difficult to get around, and handicapped parking spaces help them manage their days with reduced stress – physical and otherwise.

These parking spaces are restricted for use by people who possess a state-issued handicap parking permit. These permits come in two varieties:

  • Plastic tags, or placards, that hang from the rearview mirror
  • Special handicap license plates

Both display the wheelchair symbol, known as the International Symbol of Access (ISA).

Each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or similar agency issues handicap permits to people who either have mobility impairments or have other health complications that prevent them from walking significant distances. These permits allow a car to park in dedicated handicap parking spots near the entrance. Many of these parking spaces include extra space for wheelchairs to enter and exit a vehicle, curb cuts, or ramps up to the sidewalk.

Some states or municipalities may offer additional benefits to people with handicap permits such as free parking in metered spaces or government parking lots, or they may opt not to enforce time limits in such parking areas.

Meanwhile, if you do not have a proper handicap parking permit or license plate, it’s illegal to park in a designated handicap parking space. While penalties vary from state to state, violations can accrue fines of several hundred dollars or more, as well as other penalties.


Who qualifies for a handicap parking permit?

As with everything else, the specific qualifications for a handicap parking permit will vary from state to state. Generally, the criteria is a person’s ability to walk a distance of 100-200 yards without having to stop and rest. Other issues, such as the ease of entering and exiting a vehicle or limited night vision, may also be taken into consideration.

Some health conditions that commonly qualify a person for a handicap permit include:

  • Inability to walk without the use of a brace, cane, crutch, prosthetic device, wheelchair or similar device
  • Diseases that limit walking or the ability to use your legs
  • Advanced lung or cardiac disease
  • Vision issues, including low-vision or partial-sightedness, particularly at night
  • Either the loss or significant impairment of the use of one or both legs, or both hands
  • Arthritis
  • Other mobility or neurological impairments

Regardless of whether or not a physical condition is on the list, if you think you or someone you love would benefit from a handicap permit, be sure to check with a doctor. For example, some states will grant permits to people who use portable oxygen or have an acute sensitivity to sunlight that causes burning and blistering of the skin.

“You don’t look disabled” – Invisible disabilities that qualify

Handicap parking permits aren’t just for people in wheelchairs or on crutches.

While there are certainly people who misuse handicap parking permits, it does not mean a person is committing fraud just because they don’t "look disabled" (whatever that means anyway). There are plenty of reasons someone might qualify for a handicap tag, and they often face harassment for their invisible disability. These might include:

  • Brain injuries and tumors
  • Heart and lung conditions
  • Back injuries
  • Chronic pain
  • Seizure disorders
  • Organ transplants
  • Hidden prosthetics
  • Recent surgery
  • Cancer treatment
  • Chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia
  • Short-term memory loss

If you want to learn more about this issue, visit the Invisible Disabilities Association for information and resources about living with a disability others can’t see.[1]

Who can use a temporary handicap parking permit?

Most states also offer placards for temporary disabilities for pregnant women and people with short-term disabilities. Typically, these placards will be valid for up to six months or up to the date that your doctor notes on the application, whichever comes first.

Conditions that may qualify for a temporary permit include:

  • Pregnancy (especially for women on modified bed rest)
  • Leg injuries (broken legs, knee injuries, etc.)
  • Recovering from certain surgeries (ie. back surgery)
  • Cancer treatments (chemotherapy, radiation)
  • Any condition that impairs mobility or requires a wheelchair, crutches or similar aids

How do you get a handicap parking permit?

If you think you’d benefit from a handicap permit, the best place to start is with your primary healthcare provider. These professionals should be able to advise you about the requirements and whether or not your condition would qualify. They will also have to submit a letter or complete forms to document the illness or other disability, so it’s best to know in advance that they support your claim.

From there, visit your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles website for more information on the process. You may be able to apply online, or you might have to make an appointment with DMV staff. Either way, expect to fill out paperwork about your situation and be able to provide official medical documentation.

Fees for these permits vary among states – some states even provide placards free of charge.

Rules for using a handicap parking permit

When you receive a handicap permit, you’re the only one who is legally allowed to use it. You can use it as either the driver or passenger of a vehicle, but you must be present when the placard is displayed.

Depending on the state and the situation, willful misuse of the placard can lead to cancellation of your permit, significant fines (for the permit holder or the person using it, or both), community service, or other penalties.

In other words, it’s just not a good idea to let your family members and friends “borrow” your placard to get preferred parking at a concert, shopping mall, or other locations, or even to run an errand on your behalf.

Furthermore, most states consider the placard form of the permit to be temporary. Owners typically have to renew them every few years, providing additional documentation from a doctor that verify an ongoing disability.

Traveling out of state

You might expect that a disabled license plate or hanging placard would be valid across all 50 states, but that isn’t always the case.

If you plan to go on a road trip, you might run into some issues using an out-of-state permit (especially if you have a placard rather than a license plate). For example, California requires that disabled visitors apply for a 90-day travel placard from the California DMV.[2]

It’s common to see disabled license plates honored in all 50 states because they are permanently attached to your vehicle and part of your vehicle’s registration, and you can’t (legally) transfer them among vehicles. However, placards are temporary (even permanent ones) and since they can be moved from car to car, some states may not honor out-of-state versions.

What this means is that it’s important to do your research ahead of time. Check with the DMV for each state you plan to visit to make sure you know the rules wherever you go.

Because rules vary so much from state to state, the European site disabled motorists offers a handy list of what a disabled driver needs in each state.[3]

  1. What is an invisible disability? Invisible Disabilities Association

  2. Disabled person parking placards and plates. California DMV

  3. Europe (EEU &EEA) FIA Foundation