I park my car in a parking space reserved for those with disabilities. My door is barely open before I’m 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 I’m driving, that it’s probably not mine. Because I don’t look disabled.
Unfortunately, so much of our society is focused on appearance. You have to look the part, and if you don’t, then you can’t possibly be what you claim to be. If you’re overweight, there’s no way you can be a dancer. If you are heavily tattooed, you can’t be a lawyer. If you have disfiguring scars, you can’t be a model. While all of these myths have been debunked, there is one that hangs on with tenacity. If you don’t look disabled, you’re obviously not disabled.
Thousands upon thousands of us with invisible disabilities wish we didn’t have to park in handicapped spots. We wish we didn’t have to jump to the head of the line to board the plane first because we can’t be jostled. Our disabilities are not prizes we’ve earned that give us the right to better parking or more attention. We didn’t 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 doesn’t accept them because they’re not visible.
When you see a person walking without assistance, you may automatically assume that person is able-bodied. They’re not using a wheelchair, a scooter, or even a cane so what could possibly be wrong with them? Far too many people don’t realize there are thousands of illnesses and injuries that can limit a person’s ability to perform everyday functions that you might find simple.
Because of an injury, it’s difficult for me to bend to pick up something off the floor. I can’t stand for long periods of time nor can I climb stairs frequently. I don’t lift anything heavier than my purse, I don’t walk long distances, and I don’t sit in the same spot very long, either. But you can’t 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 can’t 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 don’t want to have to worry about whether or not some stranger thinks we’re gaming the system. We didn’t ask for “special treatment” 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 don’t 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 that’s not a choice I get to make. So I, along with hundreds of thousands of other individuals with illness and injuries you can’t 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 can’t see makes them necessary.