Taking Disability Rights to Heart – and to Court
The driver who parked his minivan in front of the South Jersey bagel shop probably assumed that no one would notice or care that his car was partially blocking the adjacent parking space designated for persons with disabilities.
But Kerry O’Connor was inside the bagel shop that Sunday in September. And yes, he noticed and yes, he cared. O’Connor, senior communications manager in the Department of Marketing and Communications at Einstein Healthcare Network, has devoted his career to making life accessible for persons with disabilities.
It’s been his personal crusade since 2004, when O’Connor spent two weeks on a freelance writing assignment, sailing a Tall Ship called the SV Tenacious. The ship was built specifically to accommodate sailors with disabilities, and it was O’Connor’s first real exposure to that community.
“The impact on me was really incredible,” he says.
After the trip was over, he began volunteering at events for people with disabilities and pursued a career that landed him at Einstein, focusing primarily on public relations efforts for MossRehab.
So when the minivan driver walked into the bagel shop that morning with three children in tow, O’Connor says, respectfully: Hey buddy, you’re blocking the accessible spot so that no one can use it. Can you please straighten out your car?
It was a simple request and a simple fix. But the driver took offense. He glared at O’Connor and said: “Mind your own damn business.”
O’Connor dropped it – he didn’t want to make a scene – picked up his bagel order and left, quietly admonishing the man for setting a bad example for his children. And no doubt the minivan driver thought that was that.
But then he didn’t know much about Kerry O’Connor. And in a matter of days, Mr. Mind-Your-Own-Damn-Business got a summons to appear in court.
When he left the bagel shop, O’Connor snapped a photo of the minivan blocking the accessible space and posted it on a neighborhood social media site. His intent wasn’t to shame anyone, since he didn’t know the driver’s identity, but to remind people to respect accessible parking spaces.
“It really can be the difference between someone being able to get their wheelchair out of the car and get where they need to be, or being forced to go home,” he says.
The response to O’Connor’s post was such – readers said he should have called police – that he, indeed, went to his local police station later that day and filed a citizen’s complaint.
So yes, you can say he’s idealistic, that his devotion to the cause of disability rights embodies MossRehab’s motto of “Challenge Accepted.”
But he’s also realistic. So when O’Connor learned the minivan driver was . . .a lawyer – indeed a partner in a prominent South Jersey law firm – he figured his mission was doomed. “I’m a guy with a photograph and he’s a guy from a law firm who’s probably looked up every loophole and plays golf with the judge,” O’Connor says with a laugh.
But O’Connor showed up at the court hearing anyway, armed with background about the laws and guidelines governing accessible parking in New Jersey, as explained to him by Julie Hensler-Cullen, director of education and quality at MossRehab.
O’Connor was accompanied by his wife, Dr. Adriana Torres-O’Connor, his in-laws, and his son, who were there to lend him support.
He also wanted to set an example for 7-year-old Kerry. “I wanted him to see me follow through; if you believe in it, you see it through, even if you’re not going to win,” he says.
The minivan driver didn’t disappoint. When the case was called, he noted that O’Connor had a photograph and had brought “witnesses” (his family), and asked the judge for a postponement to conduct “discovery” – a legal right to examine the other side’s evidence. All of this over a $250 ticket.
When the case reconvened a month later, O’Connor was back. And – lo and behold – the minivan driver pleaded guilty. He paid court costs in addition to the ticket. And though he never apologized to O’Connor or the court for wasting everyone’s time, O’Connor figures he’s not likely to block an accessible parking spot ever again. Mission accomplished.
O’Connor is proud of his professional efforts on behalf of MossRehab, which include managing the organization’s sponsorship and participation in They Will Surf Again, an annual event in which persons with disabilities go surfing at the Jersey shore assisted by hundreds of MossRehab volunteers.
He has also helped promote the new accessible logo, which is considered less demeaning than the original – formerly designated the “handicapped” logo – which the Einstein Healthcare Network and the City of Philadelphia, have adopted.
But O’Connor was really tickled by winning this court case.
When he left the courtroom that day, a police officer gave him a fist-bump. “I felt very happy,” O’Connor says. “It was good to go home and tell my son it had all worked out.”