Friday, January 15, 2010

Parking Ramp Woes

I'll start this post off with a quick poll question: why do I, a c-6/7 spinal cord injury quadriplegic, have such difficulty parking in public parking ramps?

I have a good friend who works at the
Courage Center and on account of his extensive experience involving people with spinal cord injuries he gives many presentations on traumatic injuries, namely SCI. Within the last few years or so he has taken to asking his audiences the question above toward the beginning of his SCI talks to act as an ice breaker to get them thinking about things that people with SCI deal with beyond not being able to walk and more obvious issues involving their wheelchairs. He started using me as an example in that regard during the summer of 2007 when I told him about the tough time that I had parking in a downtown Minneapolis law firm's parking ramp when I went to do an informational interview with one of their attorneys. He, like most others was clueless to the notion and went, "Oh, I never would have even thought of that had you not pointed it out." That occurrence made me extra wary for the same reason about parking in a similar parking ramp in downtown St. Paul for four days straight a month later while I was taking my bar exam. As if the stress of the bar exam wasn't enough by itself. On both accounts this particular issue was a potentially sizeable hurdle.

So back to my question: why because of my SCI do I frequently have trouble parking in parking ramps? It is one of the biggest One Man's Access issues I face living in a big city with limited accessible parking options. Any guesses? Bueller? No, it's not because my van is too big and will scrape the top of the parking ramp entrance. I drive a mini-van. No, it's not because I'll bottom out on the parking ramp. With a lowered floor to accommodate my wheelchair I do have less ground clearance than an average vehicle, but not so much that it will interfere with any parking ramp entrance. No, not because I'll hit my head on the roof of my van driving in or out of the ramp (huh?). No, not because my van is too big to take the turns on the spiral style ramps. No, not because my van is too big to park in the spots or because there aren't enough accessible parking spaces (although the latter is often true). Those are the answers my friend most commonly gets. I was with him as a guest speaker once and I witnessed it first hand as about 25 college students sized me up and spit balled ideas. Nobody ever gets it right though.

The real answer is that it is often difficult, and sometimes impossible, for me to pull the parking ticket out of the automated machine. The reason for that is that I have no voluntary finger movement on account of the paralysis in my hands, and thus don't possess even the small amount of gripping power necessary to get the ticket to release. Unless of course it's a ticket machine that automatically releases the ticket, or at least holds it limply. But in my experience coming across those looser machines is a rarity. Thank God that the ticket machine in the parking ramp I used for my bar exam had a soft release.

So how do I get the tickets out otherwise? Well first of all, if I have someone following me that I know I ask them to jump out and grab it for me quick if they see me struggling. But when I'm flying solo it's always a series of progressions. First, I try to grab it between my fore and middle fingers. No I don't have gripping power as I've mentioned, but I try to utilize my body's natural tenodesis. Using
tenodesis is a technique that many quadriplegics pick up during rehab. People that have use of their hands don't really notice this, but tenodesis occurs when you cock your wrist upward and in doing so it naturally brings the forefinger and the thumb together so that you can gain some semblance of a grip. It's how I pick up and hold the vast majority of things that I do countless times a day. So in terms of grabbing a parking ticket from a machine, cocking my wrist brings my fore and index fingers together so that I can grab skinnier things like paper.

If it doesn't release at that point my next technique is to lick my fingers to get them stickier and then try the same thing again. If that doesn't work then I both lick my fingers, wedge my hand in as tight to the base of the exposed part of the ticket as I can, and try to work the ticket back and forth to loosen it up. Although when I have found success with that technique more often than not the ticket ends up getting a little mangled and torn in the process. So the ticket booth people are always smoothing it back out on the edge of their ticket booth counters before they can scan it. The technique I feel like I've had the most success with lately has been to lick my fingers and pull the ticket straight down instead of out, to take advantage of my hand's leverage. And if all that stuff fails, then my only leftover recourse is to push the button and ask for help, which I hate having to do. Moreover, help often comes from someone stationed at another end of the ramp facility. One of my frequent nightmare scenarios is to struggle to pull out a parking ramp ticket for a lengthy period of time, or to not be able to at all, while cars of people who are in a rush pile up behind me, start getting impatient, honking their horns, etc. Luckily, that extreme situation has never presented itself but every time I approach a ticket machine and there is a car right behind me my stress level goes up a few ticks.

All that came into play the other day. I had to go to downtown Minneapolis for my first nonprofit leadership training session and my only parking option was to park in a ramp. As much as I can I try to park in the same ramp by the Target Center because I've had great success working my leverage technique to get the ticket out pretty quickly. Every time I do it successfully at that ramp my parking ticket grabbing confidence level rises.* But to my unexpected surprise that ramp was closed due to construction. Security blanked dashed. So I went to a ramp I've never used down the street, but unfortunately they had much newer machines and none of my techniques to grab the ticket were working. A few cars piled up behind me and finally a parking ramp employee jumped out of his booth to help.

The bigger problem presented itself when I was set to leave though. In all of my public parking ramp experience I've always paid someone in a ticket booth on my way out. But as I was leaving I didn't see one so I went around again thinking I accidentally tried to exit through the contract parkers' exit instead. Much to my chagrin, however, they were all automated exit lanes. What you are supposed to do is stick your ticket in one slot so it can read how much you owe, then you stick your credit/debit card into another to pay. I could probably stick both my ticket and credit card into the appropriate slots but I most definitely would not have been able to grab my card back again. Whenever I use ATMs I need both hands to pull the card back out. And in this case my right arm isn't long enough to reach over for the assist. Not to mention the increased odds of dropping something. The only other solution I could think of to do it myself was to park my van, get out and pay, get back in my van and drive away. But a) it was cold out, b) it wasn't smart or safe to do that at night, and c) I wasn't sure the turnstile would stay up long enough for me to get back in the van, put up my ramp, and drive out. So once again I had to hit the call button for help. Thankfully, I left at a time of night where I didn't cause a traffic jam. But considering all that above, as I was leaving I knew that I could probably never park there on my own again because it's not worth the risk of getting stuck.

That notion raises a few follow up observations from my perspective. First, from my own personal access standpoint I'm bothered by the proliferation of these automated parking ramp machines. When a good friend of mine is in town we often meet at a brewpub near where I live. Unless I luck out and can park on the street my only other option is the nearby parking ramp. I already needed help getting the ticket from that particular ramp's machine as it was, but a few months ago they made things worse by installing a new machine that asks you to put your credit card in before it spits out the ticket. Even worse, the ticket spits out too low for me to reach and execute my finger lickin' good hand leverage technique. Hopefully, part of the construction being done on the downtown ramp I am comfortable with doesn't involve updating their parking ticket machines. But my guess is that the fully automated ones are the wave of the future and thus more and more of them will keep popping up everywhere, in which case my parking options might ultimately become quite restricted. Bottom line: they make my life more difficult and undermine my independence out in public.

My second problem then is that it seems pretty obvious that none of these parking ramps and parking ticket machine companies put much thought toward people with hand grasping problems when they decide to install these harder to use machines. It's more streamlined and it's cheaper to not staff ticket booth personnel all day and night, I get that. But it's a major hindrance for folks like me who get trapped from exiting because we don't have the manual dexterity to do what most others can do mindlessly. Of course the obvious counter argument is why would they think of such a thing? The parking ticket machine business world isn't exactly one that typically caters specifically to people with disabilities. But I guess that's my point: why wouldn't they, even in some small way? Why wouldn't they take into account people who don't have the physical ability to pull out the tickets? It's a microcosm for a lot of hidden or previously unthought of lack of access issues that I along with many other people with disabilities face everyday.

Anyway, I need to go downtown up to six more times between now and May for the balance of my nonprofit leadership training sessions so I'm hoping that the next ramp I attempt to use allows me to get in and out fairly seamlessly.* Otherwise, it's going to be a long and frustrating spring.

*(Post update as of 1/20/10: After I published this post, and in anticipation of knowing I had to go downtown Minneapolis and park in another unfamiliar parking ramp today, I brainstormed ideas to solve my "I can't pull out the parking ticket" quandry off and on throughout the weekend. What I came up with was to tape a piece of duct tape (sticky part facing out) to my index finger. The idea, of course, was that when I grabbed at the ticket with my fore and middle fingers that the duct tape would stick to the ticket well enough to give me the extra gripping assist I so needed. I'm happy to report that it worked like a charm and I pulled the ticket out like butter. The only trick going forward, however, is maintaining the proper foresight to bring a duct tape strip along with me whenever I know that I need to park in a ramp. Regardless, I consider this a fairly big discovery in terms aiding my future access. Anyway, I couldn't figure out a way to seamlessly work this into my original post above, so I thought that I would add an addendum down here instead. Hopefully, this tidbit helps a few others.)


  1. Any chance photos can be added to this post at a future date?

    I’ve studied the tenodesis link and tried reconstructing the issue with “paralyzed fingers” but am not sure if I’m accurately getting a picture of the technique. Is leverage coming from the wrist and “grip” coming from the weight of middle finger against forefinger caused just from gravity? Or, are the fingers pulled together through muscle movement of the wrist turning?

    How do you get the piece of duct tape free from the role?

    Do I ask too many questions?


  2. I would say that the list provides the leverage and grip is formed by the fingers coming together, yes. If you Google tenodesis images you will find other diagrams. I was going to link that but there are some wicked pictures of tenodesis surgeries, etc. that I figured people wouldn't be wild about seeing.

    I got the duct tape off my finger by another quad trick of the trade: by ripping it off with my teeth.