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.
- I’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.
- I love stuffed animals. I always have and I probably always will.
- 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.
- 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.
- As a toddler, I once ate part of a slug. I know, right? Ew!
- 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.”
- I used to also be really scared of bears and had nightmares about them, but now they are (from afar) my favourite animal.
- 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-
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.
- I failed the first level of swimming lessons because I refused to put my head under water.
- 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.