By KATE BARCELLOS
CASTLETON — It was Father’s Day, and the Carlson-Pontos decided to have a barbecue.
Karleen, her husband Arnie, and their three adopted children — Angel, 17, Ruth Anne, 12, and Ryan, 11 — piled into the family van and headed to Shaw’s in Fair Haven for supplies.
For the Castleton family, going anywhere is no small feat. Arnie Ponto, 54, has cerebral palsy, and Angel has spina bifida, so their Ford E-250 van has a rear-access lift with a 6-foot reach for their wheelchairs.
In order for them to exit the van safely, they need an 8-foot clearance behind the van for their wheelchair lift, and a yellow sticker with black lettering on the rear drivers-side window lets motorists know: “Please do not park within 8 feet.”
Often, Ryan and Angel said, the sign is ignored, and cars pull right up to the back of their vehicle, leaving Arnie and Angel stranded outside in their wheelchairs until Karleen pulls the van away so the lift has room to drop down to the curb.
The entire operation can take up to 30 minutes.
This was one of those times, and Ryan had finally had enough. He asked his mom if they could stop at the police station and talk to an officer, but Karleen had a different idea, and Ryan liked it.
So the very next day, Ryan got up extra early and hand-wrote a letter to the editor of the Rutland Herald before he went to school.
“I am really upset and mad that people do not seem to give a hoot about other people with disabilities,” Ryan wrote. “C-ya! Sincerely (the upset and mad) Ryan.”
Arnie, who communicates using head motions, his tongue and his eye movements, said Ryan completed not one, but two drafts of the letter before he and Angel, along with her personal-care assistant Alexa, walked down to the post office to mail it in.
“I didn’t expect anything to happen,” Ryan said. “I just wanted people to show a little respect.”
Karleen, 66, said the problem of people disregarding the needs of the disabled in parking lots could happen anywhere, even at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center or in the parking garage at University of Vermont Medical Center. That’s where the family visits at least twice a year for regular checkups and most recently, for Arnie’s bouts of pneumonia and screenings for the return of bladder cancer he suffered from three years ago.
“It happens at larger shopping centers,” Karleen said. “And using back and side entrances.”
The family doesn’t often go out “in force,” Karleen said. They spend much of their time at home caring for their many heritage and rare-breed farm animals, and typically will limit their excursions into town to once or twice a week.
The warning on the family’s van is also posted in consideration for motorists. Arnie said he worries they’re going to scratch other cars with their lift, and they park very carefully wherever they go.
The situation is a tricky one, according to Ed Paquin, executive director of Disability Rights Vermont. He regularly works with the Disability Law project at Vermont Legal Aid.
“The only legal protection that we can give is if there are insufficient spaces of the proper size according to the ADA codes,” he said, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act. “When there’s a disability issue, it doesn’t hurt to call us.”
Paquin said the misuse of existing accessible parking spaces and not enough adequately sized spaces are two of the most common issues brought to his attention.
“We certainly hear of people who are very able-bodied using the placard,” Paquin said. “People with family members who are disabled.”
Paquin, who uses a wheelchair himself, drives a regular car and has been in situations where he hasn’t been able to find an accessible parking space, but there’s no system-wide action addressing the mistreatment felt by the disabled community.
“It’s tough to enforce,” he said. “I’d advise contacting the local police. People who have the ability to enforce the law should know that it’s being violated. They should be aware that it’s an issue.”
Though the Carlson-Pontos have to take a slightly different road, use an alternate entrance, or park in a rare and specific parking spot wherever they go, the adversity hasn’t hindered their strength as a family, and even serves to inspire their future endeavors.
Fair Haven Union High School senior Angel, who has undergone seven surgeries due to her condition, said she would like to be an inspiration for others with her condition someday.
“She’s working on becoming a Child Life Volunteer,” Karleen said. “When she was in the hospital, volunteers would come down and spend time, and bring iPads and talk to her. She’d like to do that for others.”
Ryan said he hopes other people begin to open their eyes and consider the needs of people who may need a little more help, and that they practice awareness and kindness in their day-to-day routines.
“I just hope people listen for a change,” he said. “It’s not that hard.”