In 1990, he shipped out with the U.S. Navy on the U.S.S. Normandy. The ship was on its way from the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to unload ammunition at Bayonne Naval Base. Gehm fell 55 feet from the main mast of his ship onto a steel deck when the harness he was using gave way.
It took over a year for Gehm to recover. Now, he must use a wheelchair to get around.Gehm, a South Carolina native, came to Secaucus shortly after his accident with his wife Tess. He has been teaching history at Secaucus High School for the last decade. Many students there have said his teaching style is inventive and engaging. Gehm made a fine recovery from an unfortunate event except for one continuing, nagging problem - there is a general disregard and disrespect for handicapped parking. Gehm said more often than not, he is faced with someone either blocking him in so he can't leave, or making him wait for long periods of time for a handicapped parking space that a non-handicapped person has used. He also has complained to business owners who do not have the parking spaces to ADA (federal Americans with Disabilities Act) standards. To add insult to injury, when he explains the situation, many people often do not comply and yell or speak rudely to him. "I have this problem all the time. You wouldn't believe how often I try to reason with no results. It's like banging my head against the wall," said Gehm.
What's the big deal?
Handicapped parking spaces are provided to allow people with physical disabilities closer and easier access to public places. Parking in distant spaces increases the time needed for disabled people to get around. It also increases the possibility for a disabled person to be in an accident, especially in rainy or snowy weather. "I did not ask to be in this wheelchair. Even though it was not an act of war, I was injured while serving my country," Gehm said. "I don't want special privileges. I just want to go out like everybody else and go about my business."
But most people don't see it that way, Gehm said. He said he expects business owners to have usable handicap spaces built to code and for non-handicapped drivers to respect the parking signs.
In 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed to require businesses and public buildings to be accessible to the disabled.
A handicapped person needs a large amount of space while exiting from a lift in their van. By law, accessible parking spaces are at least 96 inches wide. Parking access aisles must be 5 feet wide for standard cars and 8 feet wide for vans.
"People have a tendency to park in the crossed-off area reserved for the person getting in and out of their lift," said Police Chief Dennis Corcoran. "When convenience and time constraints are the main focus of the [non-handicapped] shopper, there are parking violations."
Corcoran said that limited police manpower means they cannot enforce all the violations all of the time. But Gehm said he has taken a picture of a Secaucus Police vehicle in a handicap parking space. "It does not seem all that enforced to me," said Gehm.
People who use wheelchairs, scooters, crutches, and other with mobility aids often find that some newer and older city and county facilities have inaccessible parking, routes to and through buildings, inaccessible restrooms, and counters that are too high.
It is very common for architects and contractors to follow only their local building codes, which may not be as wide-ranging as the federal ADA.
Due to these physical barriers, some people with mobility impairments may have to rely on others to assist them when transacting their business, or they may not participate in activities in which they would otherwise be interested.
"I have had battle with new restaurant facilities who have ADA bathroom stalls but no accessibility into the store," Gehm said. "What sense is there in that? A local gas station owner, whose parent company has been very helpful, refuses to help and treats me like I'm causing him a problem."
Town Administrator and ADA coordinator Anthony Iacono said he agrees there is a problem with the handicapped parking violations. He said regulating every building for ADA code standards is difficult. "Just tell me what I need to do to make it better. I'm all ears," said Iacono.
While statistics for ADA parking problems and solutions in New Jersey are hard to come by, there is one area where state officials are proud. According to the May issue of a publication called HAVAccess that is put out by a company that helps election officials implement election reform measures, polling stations are 97 percent accessible.