More disabled veterans may get special license tag

Sean Pike

COLUMBIA -- Rep. Wendell Gilliard came up with one more way South Carolina can honor the state's military heroes.

Gilliard, a Charleston Democrat, said a bill he will file in the state House ahead of the January session would allow less-severely disabled wartime veterans to obtain special license plates to park in spaces reserved for handicapped individuals.

"The state of South Carolina, I know, is truly proud of looking out for our veterans," Gilliard said. "I know it will pass."

The bill removes the requirement in the existing law that a disabled wartime veteran be totally and permanently disabled and allows for a person who is considered 70 percent disabled to obtain the tag. The level of disability would be determined by medical records.

The legislation also removes the requirement that a driver who is a disabled wartime veteran and has a license plate with the handicapped symbol also has to apply for the parking placard.

Gwen Gillenwater, executive director of the disAbility Resource Center in North Charleston, said she applauds the sentiment, but she has concerns about keeping the handicapped spaces available to people who need them most.

Gillenwater said the Legislature in 2008 and 2009 reviewed standards for access to the handicapped parking spaces to make sure the spots are not being abused. The law changed about a year ago to tighten the rules by requiring photos to appear on the placards as new ones are issued and old ones are renewed, she said.

Gillenwater said she does not want the state to undo the progress. "It concerns me," she said, adding, "I don't want to in any way disparage what is being done for veterans. You've got to look at this closely."

Gilliard, who has a son serving in Afghanistan and another on standby in the reserves, said the idea for the legislation was brought to him by Sean Pike of West Ashley.

Pike, a military instructor at The Citadel, served for about 10 years as an Air Force medical administrator, including providing support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beginning around 2010, Pike said his work with disabled veterans inspired him to find ways South Carolina can make life easier on servicemen and women.

Changing the standards for a handicapped plate is one of the biggest little changes Pike said he'll push to make.

"It's an all-or-nothing game here," Pike said of the 100 percent-disabled standard. "I felt like it was completely unfair to veterans."

The proposal would not add another tag to the state's 370 specialty plates, of which about 140 are available to the general public. The bill would expand eligibility for the existing disabled veterans' plate.

Jean Smolen, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, said the Legislature adds roughly eight to 12 new plates a year, many of which provide donations to specific causes.