By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006; B09
District officials have agreed to make the city's 17,000 parking meters more accessible to drivers with disabilities and recognize out-of-state handicapped parking permits.
The moves are part of an agreement to settle a lawsuit filed two years ago by disability rights advocates. The settlement requires the District to make numerous changes, including ensuring that every block with parking meters has at least two that are easily accessible to people using wheelchairs or scooters.
"The city is going to become significantly more accessible to people with disabilities in a wheelchair or in a car," said Kathleen A. Walsh, a manager with the Equal Rights Center, one of the organizations that brought the lawsuit.
The city promised that future meters will be installed at an accessible height and facing the sidewalk. Curb ramps on blocks with meters will also comply with the latest standards, the city said.
This year, the D.C. Council passed legislation recognizing valid handicapped parking permits from the states -- addressing the other major part of the lawsuit.
In 2001, the District tightened its rules on handicapped parking and became the only state-level jurisdiction to not recognize the permits of other states, requiring drivers to obtain a D.C. permit.
U.S. District Judge John D. Bates approved the settlement Tuesday. The suit accused the D.C. government of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act.
City officials have not determined the cost of the work or how many meters or streets will be affected by the settlement. The D.C. Department of Transportation is studying what needs to be done.
"It will be a significant undertaking," said Traci Hughes, spokeswoman for the D.C. Office of the Attorney General.
"There will be some engineering and structural changes to streets."
The District has three years to comply with the provisions of the agreement. In addition to making meters more accessible, the city will pay the plaintiffs $156,000 for attorney's fees, costs and damages.
"It's going to be really nice to just pay parking meters like everyone else," said Russell Holt, a wheelchair user and one of the plaintiffs.
"It's difficult to find a parking spot in D.C., but it is even more difficult to find an accessible space where a ramp can come down from a van, and even more difficult to find a parking meter that is not in a flower bed or surrounded by roots," he said.
"The way we see it is that this is the nation's capital and where the ADA was signed," Holt said. "This is a big step in this direction."
The new law on parking permit reciprocity will allow Isabel Kessler to visit the city's museums and attractions more often. The 10-year-old from Chevy Chase has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
Her father, Lewis Kessler, said the District's refusal to honor the family's Maryland handicapped placard made it difficult to attend events in the city. Some states allow holders of handicapped placards issued in other states to park for free at metered spaces.
"D.C. was basically an island in this whole debate," Kessler said.
"It sent a message out that if you have a disability, it will be extremely difficult to enjoy D.C."
The suit was filed shortly before the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in May 2004.
It contended that thousands of veterans with disabilities should be able to visit the memorial without getting a parking ticket and that the city should recognize their out-of-state handicapped parking permits and not require them to obtain city permits.