Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Invisible Disabilities

Things aren't always quite as they seem.

About two weeks ago I published a Blog entry on the issue of those who knowingly misuse handicapped parking placards. At that time I mentioned an (unofficial) research project where several students at a local college were "busted" for using the placard of a deceased relative to obtain closer parking spots on campus. Shame on them.

I'm sure we've all witnessed this familiar spectacle. You're waiting for a "handicapped permit required" space to open up at your favorite grocery or appliance store when suddenly, another car appears from nowhere and swings merrily into "your" spot.


Then you notice the handicapped parking plate (or placard) and you force yourself to take a deep breath. After all, perhaps they need it more than you do. You sigh to your trusty wheelchair in resignation, and prepare to circle the parking lot one more time.

But wait -- suddenly, two people emerge from the vehicle, and seemingly (to you) skip happily away and into the store. No wheelchair. No crutches. Not so much as a tell-tail limp.

You briefly consider ramming the rear end of their car, wondering if your insurance company will buy "I was acting as an agent of karma" as an excuse. Then you sigh again (your wheelchair says nothing, being used to this by now) and you make another circuit around the parking lot, wondering if there is a special Hell waiting for people like these.

Perhaps not.

I am reminded, often it seems, that not all disabilities are visible ones. Usually the reminders are subtle, but sometimes they are rather blatant.

I recall one incident sometime last summer when my wife and I paid a visit to our local drug store for a refill of a medication I needed. I wasn't feeling my best that day, so I remained with the car while my wife made the trip inside for me. We parked in one of several vacant handicapped parking spaces. Because I was staying with the car I didn't think to display my placard, instead opting to complete the more vital task (to me) of finding something decent to listen to on the radio. Then came a soft rapping sound on my window.

"Hello? Young man?"

I looked up, and smiled reflexively. The woman peering in at me was probably closer to my own age than not, but I do look younger than my true age, so I'm used to the mistake. I rolled down the window.

"Yes?" I replied with a bigger smile. "Can I help you?"

What came next was about thirty seconds of a very polite, but firm, chastisement over my having (apparently) been unaware of what a handicapped space was for, complete with genuine concern (I could tell) that I might get a parking ticket. She didn't want a pound of my flesh... she just wanted me to move. A valid request, under other circumstances. But I can't drive. I was even sitting on the passenger side. She had no way of knowing that I was handicapped.

I smiled again, and produced my placard, which I promptly hooked over the rear view mirror so it could be seen by any other interested parties, or police, that happened by. She looked terribly embarrassed.

What followed next was a five minute conversation about people who use (or misuse) handicapped parking privileges. I thanked her, in no uncertain terms, for having the guts to speak out to a complete stranger in a public parking lot. It was something I had never done, in all my years as a handicapped person, and here she was bravely doing what I had not... she was standing up for my rights.

It humbled me. It made me feel just a little bit ashamed too.

We parted ways moments before my wife returned with my medicine, and I told her of my encounter. The seed had been planted, but it took until now for that seed to take root in the form of this Blog, and the Toledo Access Guide.

The point is, her mistake, and one most of us make, is that many disabilities are completely invisible to the average observer. Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, internal injuries, and cancer are only a few examples of a disability which could be completely invisible, and yet require one to seek a closer parking space. So as a word to the wise, be careful when confronting anyone who "looks fine" but may very well not be as fine as they look. While not every "disability" should automatically qualify one for special parking consideration, having an "invisible disability" shouldn't automatically disqualify one either. This is why we need strict guidelines, and tighter controls.

So the next time you see someone without a cane exiting a parked car in a "handicapped" spot, take two deep breaths. They may actually have a right to it after all, and insurance rates are high enough as it is.

Note: I recommend visiting the My Invisible Disabilities online community if you have an "invisible" disability, or know someone who does. Friendly people, tons of useful information, and plenty of support. I rate them Five Stars!

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