I park my car in a parking space reserved for those with disabilities. My door is barely open before Iím confronted by a woman who demands to see my handicap parking placard. Her mother is disabled, and she needs the space. I point her toward my tag with its blue drawing of a wheelchair then start walking to the doors of the pharmacy. She calls after me, telling me I could have borrowed the car Iím driving, that itís probably not mine. Because I donít look disabled.
Unfortunately, so much of our society is focused on appearance. You have to look the part, and if you donít, then you canít possibly be what you claim to be. If youíre overweight, thereís no way you can be a dancer. If you are heavily tattooed, you canít be a lawyer. If you have disfiguring scars, you canít be a model. While all of these myths have been debunked, there is one that hangs on with tenacity. If you donít look disabled, youíre obviously not disabled.
Thousands upon thousands of us with invisible disabilities wish we didnít have to park in handicapped spots. We wish we didnít have to jump to the head of the line to board the plane first because we canít be jostled. Our disabilities are not prizes weíve earned that give us the right to better parking or more attention. We didnít go to our doctors and beg for our disability status. Life, fate, whatever you want to call it made that decision, and, for the most part, we have accepted our challenges. But so much of this world doesnít accept them because theyíre not visible.
When you see a person walking without assistance, you may automatically assume that person is able-bodied. Theyíre not using a wheelchair, a scooter, or even a cane so what could possibly be wrong with them? Far too many people donít realize there are thousands of illnesses and injuries that can limit a personís ability to perform everyday functions that you might find simple.
Because of an injury, itís difficult for me to bend to pick up something off the floor. I canít stand for long periods of time nor can I climb stairs frequently. I donít lift anything heavier than my purse, I donít walk long distances, and I donít sit in the same spot very long, either. But you canít see my injury when you look at me nor can you see the pain that accompanies me everywhere I go. And because of that, I canít possibly be disabled.
Perhaps most of us with invisible disabilities could perform them. We could wince every time we move, cry out in pain as we walk through a store, or huff and puff loudly so people will notice and appreciate that we are, in fact, disabled. But most of us just want to live our lives the best we can without having to prove anything. We donít want to have to worry about whether or not some stranger thinks weíre gaming the system. We didnít ask for ďspecial treatmentĒ that the law provides us, but sometimes, we have to take it, especially if it enables us to be a part of the world.
I donít know of any disabled people who prefer front row parking to a life without pain. I know I would gladly trade in my handicapped tag if it meant I could have the life I had before my injury. But thatís not a choice I get to make. So I, along with hundreds of thousands of other individuals with illness and injuries you canít see, will continue to park where we need to park, move to the front of the line, and accept assistance even if it means an able-bodied person has to wait. Not because we love taking advantage of accommodations, but because what you canít see makes them necessary.