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I'm No Longer Ashamed of Using Disability Parking With an Invisible Illness

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“You should be ashamed of yourself.”

These are the words I heard recently as I approached my car. They were coming from a woman who had just exited the same store I was in and was walking to her car a few spaces away from mine. At first, I had no idea why this woman was saying these words to me. As I approached my car, I realized she was scolding me because I was parked in a disability parking space. This was not the first time this had happened. It certainly will not be the last time.

I have several chronic illnesses that include an autoimmune disease called Sjogren’s syndrome, two neurological disorders, a lung condition, and a laundry list of other conditions. I do not use an assistive device. Although there have recently been several times that it is obvious I am struggling to walk, most of the time, I appear well on the outside. The inside is an entirely different story.

My symptoms, and their severity, vary day to day, and subsequently, so does my use of the disability parking placard. Some days I experience weakness in my legs, difficulty keeping my balance, or I may walk with an unsteady gait. Other days, I struggle with severe joint and muscle pain, bathroom issues, extreme fatigue, and breathing difficulties. On many days, I can experience all of these symptoms. This is why many chronic illnesses are also termed invisible illnesses; we look fine on the outside but are far from healthy on the inside.

Over the years, I have responded in different ways to these accusations, from becoming angry with the person to calmly attempting to explain invisible illnesses. Neither approach has ever yielded a positive result. I have found that engaging with a person like the woman at the store escalates the situation, and ultimately causes me more stress. To me, the extra stress is not worth it. Instead, I try to educate people through my writing.

In all honesty, before I even had a symptom or an inkling of what would lie ahead for me in regards to my health, I sometimes made the same judgment about people using disability parking spaces. If I saw a person getting in or out of a car without a wheelchair, cane, or walker and/or they “looked healthy,” I would make judgments in my mind about the necessity of why they were parked in a disability space, or even why they had a placard in the first place.

I was ignorant.

One of the many ways getting sick has changed me for the better: it educated me, taught me tolerance, and to not judge what I do not know or understand.

When I first experienced the symptoms of chronic illness, a disabled friend of mine suggested I apply for a disability parking placard. I had never considered it. I thought that I wasn’t sick enough to warrant this kind of help. At the time, I think I was experiencing some denial about what was happening to my body, because difficulty breathing definitely counts as being sick enough to use a placard. I was also afraid of what people would say to me in the parking lots. I was not a person who liked to draw attention to myself. Most importantly, it was early on in the course of my chronic illness journey and I felt like applying for a placard would be giving up. I couldn’t give up because I thought I was going to bounce back from whatever was going on with me medically and resume my previous life.

That was 14 years ago. Luckily for me, my friend was insistent about the placard and convinced me that I should at least get one, and then I could decide if and when I wanted to use it. While I don’t use it every day, I’ve had one ever since I first applied 14 years ago.

It is some of the best advice I have ever received. The placard has enabled me to do things I might not otherwise be able to do, or not be able to do as easily. For example, parking in a disability parking spot means it takes less distance to get in and out of the store, resulting in walking down an extra aisle for an item I wouldn’t otherwise be able to buy. Another example is the time I went to my cousin’s college graduation. I drove myself and was meeting family members on campus. The campus was large and spread out. The disability parking space allowed me to park much closer to the graduation venue and because of that, my pain levels didn’t jump up as dramatically as they would have if I walked the distance from the outlying parking lots.

Over time, I have come to understand that using a placard isn’t about giving up; it is about using a resource that allows me to live as independently as possible. I no longer hang my head in embarrassment when someone confronts me about using a placard. Rather, I hold my head high and remind myself that using a disability placard is a part of giving myself the chance to live as well as I can with chronic illness.

Getty image by Connel Design.

Originally published: June 21, 2022
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