Let’s make it personal

Being that it’s Invisible Illness Awareness Week, I want to talk about a situation that a lot of people with invisible illnesses and disabilities face.

Accessible parking permits. To use or not to use?

I’ve read way too many stories about people being verbally harassed or finding nasty notes on their car doubting their right to an accessible parking permit. Thankfully this has never happened to me, but stories like these are the reason I sometimes avoid using my permit even when I need it.

Last week, on my way home from a doctor’s appointment I had to stop and run a quick errand. I was having a shaky day and the large parking lot was very busy so when I found a designated disability spot I pulled in, parked and placed my permit on my rear-view mirror. As I got out of my car and walked into the store I received some very dirty and doubtful looks from two men also walking in.  I will never know for certain the reasons behind their dirty looks, but I do know for certain that this is not the first time I have been on the receiving end of questionable stares when an able-appearing me parked in an accessible spot and walked away from my car.

The people who give dirty looks, leave nasty notes and confront permit users about their permit “misuse” think they are doing so, white hat in place, in defence of people with “actual” disabilities everywhere. However, those intentions are misguided and in many situations very hurtful.

I know it’s really frustrating when you see someone parking in a designated disability spot without a permit. It’s annoying when you follow the rules and don’t park there even though you’d like the convenience, and it’s annoying when you need that spot and are unable to do what you need to do because it’s not available. But this isn’t about that.

I also know it’s really frustrating to think of people misusing permits, using their family member’s permit that just happens to be hanging in the car and taking a close parking spot even if that permit holder isn’t getting out of the car or present at all. Does this happen sometimes? Probably.

But here’s the tricky part. How can we know for sure that the person using the permit isn’t legitimately entitled to it? We can’t. Disability does not have one look, and lots of the time it doesn’t have any identifying look at all. Without talking to that person, we have no idea what circumstances in their life have led them to decide to use that permit on that day. And that person does not owe anyone an explanation of those circumstances.

This is when we need to give other people the benefit of the doubt.

I find it’s always easier to give someone else the benefit of the doubt if you have a personal connection to the situation. It’s easier to understand another person’s struggles if someone you know has struggled in a similar way, or if you yourself have been in that position. Compassion and understanding come a lot more freely if your sister or uncle or cousin or neighbour or friend has been there.

So let’s make it personal.

Chances are that between your family and friends you probably know someone with an invisible illness or disability. And if not, well you know me. Unless, of course, this is the first time you’ve ever read anything I’ve written. Either way, you’re about to get to know me a little better.

  1. img_7594I’m a pretty terrible singer because I’m pretty much tone deaf. I also can’t whistle even though I’ve been trying to learn my entire life.
  2. I love stuffed animals. I always have and I probably always will.
  3. I was kind of an orthodontic nightmare. I wore headgear for a while (only at night, phew!) and I had braces for three full years.
  4. The first concert I ever went to was Britney Spears. I was probably way too young to be at a Britney Spears concert, but my friend’s dad got free tickets through work. I wore a knee-length velour skirt.
  5. As a toddler, I once ate part of a slug. I know, right? Ew!
  6. I’m terrified of earthquakes, I think because I live near a major fault line and my entire life people have been talking about the overdue “Big One.”
  7. I used to also be really scared of bears and had nightmares about them, but now they are (from afar) my favourite animal.
  8. I played the saxophone for three years in my high school band. Instead of having a pair of the girls’ uniform pants for band performances, I had a pair of hand-me-

    Cory and Topanga: the first wedding I ever attended!

    downs from my brother, which means they were pleated at the waist and tapered at the ankle. I hated them with a passion, but I must confess that they were very comfortable.

  9. I failed the first level of swimming lessons because I refused to put my head under water.
  10. TGIF (tell me you remember TGIF) was a very big deal in our house and when Cory and Topanga got married we dressed up and did our own re-enactment. That said, Sabrina the Teenage Witch was my personal favourite of the line-up.

There you go. There are ten things about me that you (probably) didn’t already know. We’re practically besties, now.  And now you know someone who doesn’t always look sick or disabled even though they are. So next time you see an able-bodied looking person using a disability permit, remember your headgear-wearing, slug-eating, saxophone-playing, swimming-lesson-failing bestie.

Remember that what you can see with your eyes is never the entire picture.

And remember that we’re all just doing our best to make it through the day.


She’s friends with me for the parking. Kidding. I hope.

5 thoughts on “Let’s make it personal

  1. We had a very successful bumper sticker campaign in Australia “Check out the permit, not the person”. The rules for issuing permits are strict and need medical evidence to substantiate the claims. I like to think that if there is a valid permit on display, the needs of the parker are genuine. It disturbs me to think that families of people with disabilities would abuse the system because one would think families would realise the importance of NOT abusing the privilege of owning a permit. When they abuse the system, they are also hurting the ones they love because it generates distrust in society, makes it harder for people with invisible illnesses like yourself and devalues the entire permit system and the need for equity within society for those of us who need the extra help.

    Well done Meredith for reigning in those nasty shopping trolleys that get left in the way. You are a champion! There’s nothing worse than pulling into the one accessible park that is left only to find out there is no room for the wheelchair alongside or to unload the car, or you get out the car, into the chair and then the ramps up to the kerb are blocked by wayward shopping trolleys. This then requires one to make the big decision of whether to take the risk of traversing a dangerous carpark where drivers don’t see people low down in wheelchairs in order to find another access ramp to the footpath or to abandon the shopping trip altogether because it is too hard! These accessible spaces are not a mere ‘convenience’ – they are essential for many people who, without them, would not be able to access the shopping premises at all. We all should have the right to access the services in our neighbourhoods.

    Well, you got me going again, Catherine! Good job – I hope your article here stimulates thought and conversation amongst people who had never considered these issues.

    Happy shopping!

    • Permits here require medical substantiation as well, but people are privileged enough not to ever need one probably wouldn’t know that. That sounds like a great campaign though! I’m going to remember that.

  2. I never ever judge someone for parking in the handicap spot. Being and OT and having a child with special needs I understand that not all disabilities are evident, you should never have to explain a thing. I am however very guilty of talking to people who walk up and leave their cart blocking the handicapped access, I think that is just rude and I call people on that one all the time.

    • And see I don’t think that’s a problem, because you are legitimately protecting that access for anyone with a disability, whether they look like they have one or not 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s