Using Disabled Parking With an Invisible Illness


Most of us have seen people in wheelchairs, as well as elderly people with walkers, oxygen, or other visible signs of disability parking in the most choice parking spaces in just about any parking lot in America. Bystanders don’t think twice about someone with an obvious disability using their Disabled Parking Permit to get as close to the door as they are able. Most of us have also seen seemingly able people – Disabled Parking placard hanging on the rearview mirror – park their cars in front of those coveted blue signs, exit their cars without difficulty, and head in to do their shopping. This irks us – perhaps it’s the fact that we all want to park up front, and seeing someone else “cheat” is just too much.

However, there are many conditions that are invisible to the naked eye but make it impossible for a person to walk up through a sea of parked cars to get into a building. As a person with an invisible illness that renders me a person with a disability, I understand this all too well now. I must admit, however, that at one point in my life I was all kinds of judgmental when I’d see a car full of young people (that standard has risen dangerously high as I grow older) whip into a disability parking space, hop out of the car, and bound merrily into the store together.

I didn’t think about the possibility that one of those young people has an invisible disability. Should she give up her life, her activities with her friends, just because she is unable to walk very far without negative effects? Perhaps this is the first time she has hung out with her friends in weeks and they just want to pick up some pop and chips. Should we expect her to drag herself out of the car, a friend holding her up as she forces her exhausted body across the pavement to the door? Of course not, that’s ridiculous.

Defining Invisible Disability

The problem occurs when people judge others by what they can see with their eyes. Everyone with a disability is different – there is no standard “look” of disability or illness. The truth is, people are quick to cater to a person in a wheelchair, and loathe to even think that a 30-year old man with no visible differences might be in constant, severe pain, or that the simple activity of going into the grocery store for a gallon of milk might leave that 19-year-old woman in so much pain and exhaustion that she will be bedridden for several days afterward.

There is a reason these are called “invisible disabilities.” As a society we need to learn not to appoint ourselves as accessibility police, and understand it is not our individual jobs to judge people we come across in public.

Invisible Disabilities

There are many conditions which aren’t readily apparent to others that can be severely debilitating, and which may qualify a person for use of disabled parking privileges. While it would be impossible to provide an exhaustive list here, these are a few invisible conditions that limit a person’s ability to walk any distance because of pain or extreme fatigue:

Qualifications for Obtaining a Disabled Parking Permit

Each state has its own laws regarding disabled parking, and the obtaining of a disabled parking placard or license plate. Most states offer both temporary and permanent parking placards for people with temporary or long-term disabilities. They also offer special license plates for those whose disabilities are permanent.

Many people are surprised to learn that requiring the use of a wheelchair isn’t at the top of the list of conditions qualifying someone for a disabled parking permit. In fact, while these may be stated slightly differently from state to state, a disabled parking permit may be issued to a person who:

  1. is unable to walk 200 feet without stopping to rest
  2. is unable to walk without the use of, or assistance from, a brace, cane, crutch, another person, prosthetic device, wheelchair, or other device
  3. is restricted by lung disease to a specific standard
  4. uses portable oxygen
  5. has a cardiac condition to a specific standard
  6. is severely limited in his or her ability to walk, due to an arthritic, neurological, or orthopedic condition.

Yes, you read that right – if you are unable to walk 200 feet without stopping to rest, you may qualify for a disabled parking permit. These criteria must be judged by your personal physician, and attested to on the form you submit to the DMV.

Disabled Parking and Service Dogs

While service dogs can help their humans with a wide variety of disabling conditions, the use of a service dog itself is not enough to qualify for a disabled parking permit. The individual using the dog must still meet one of the six qualifications above to legally obtain a disabled placard or license plate.

How to Obtain a Disabled Parking Permit

If you feel you meet any of the qualifications listed above, obtaining a disabled parking permit is a fairly simple matter. Go to your state’s DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) website and search for the form to apply for a disabled parking placard. Print the form, fill out your information at the top, then take it to your doctor for his signature. Return the completed form to the DMV for processing. If you return it in person, they can give you window placards immediately. In some states they can also issue plates at the window, but others must order them and they will be mailed to you.

In addition to long-term and permanent disabled parking permits, most states also offer temporary disabled parking placards. These are usually red rather than blue, and are only good for three to six months, depending on the state. They are commonly issued for such issues as orthopedic injuries, surgeries, and illnesses which are expected to heal, giving the person his or her ability to walk distances back. The process for obtaining a temporary placard is the same – you should fill out the same form and take it to your doctor for his or her signature.

Displaying a Disabled Parking Placard

Even if you are eligible for special license plates, they will issue you a parking placard that can be hung from the rearview mirror for occasions in which you ride in someone else’s car. It’s important to realize that these placards are issued to you as a disabled person, and are not transferable to a friend or family member who wants to get prime parking at a concert.

Placards should be hung from the rearview mirror, facing the front of the vehicle, after you park the car.

Penalties for Unauthorized Use of Disabled Parking

It is against the law to fraudulently obtain and use a disabled parking placard or license plate in all 50 states. It is also illegal to park in designated disabled parking stalls without a valid placard or plate. While the exact penalties for unauthorized use of disabled parking privileges vary by state, they involve significant fines which increase with successive incidents.

Specifically, it is unlawful to do any of the following:

  • Obtain a disabled placard, license plate, or identification card in any manner not provided by law
  • Use a disabled placard or license plate that is not issued to you
  • Park in a designated disabled parking space when the vehicle is not transporting the person to whom the placard or plate was issued
  • Park in a designated disabled parking space without an identifying placard or plate
  • Block the access aisle next to and around an accessible parking space

The True Cost of Judging Those With Invisible Disabilities

As Leslie locked her car, parked in a disabled parking spot near the front door of the grocery store, she heard “Wow, can’t you read?” Uncomprehending, Leslie lifted her head, looking around, and the woman continued, “You should be ashamed of yourself, taking that spot from someone who needs it.” The woman was actually sneering, and Leslie was shocked.

Leslie has ME/CFS, and is constantly in pain and so exhausted that she rarely leaves her home. She depends on others to do her shopping and orders a lot of things online, having them delivered to her door. Like the rest of us, Leslie wants to get out and see people, to just browse the aisles at a store, or hang out at the mall, but it’s been more than three years since she was able to do that. On this day, she desperately needed some milk, and some allergy medication – that’s all, and she had dragged herself out, knowing she would pay for even this small activity for a couple of days.

This judgmental woman’s heartless and loutish remarks left Leslie in tears. In fact, she called me after she got home, still upset by the incident. Such judgment by self-righteous people leaves those of us with invisible disabilities feeling violated.

The truth is, a disabled parking permit allows many people with invisible disabilities to live a somewhat more “normal” life. It allows us to go places we probably wouldn’t go, giving us some sense of independence. While making a quick milk run or dropping off a package at the post office may seem trivial to most people, they are manna from heaven for someone who is largely stuck at home or who has a very finite amount of energy.

Getty image by Leah613.


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