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Yes, I Need That Disability Parking Space

In August this year I was midway through one of my childhood dreams — to road trip from Cape Tribulation (Far North Queensland) to Brisbane. I had been traveling for a week already, having the time of my life, and on this particular day I had just arrived in Airlie Beach and met my friend Lucy, who was joining me for that part of my trip. I had already driven for approximately four hours as I had been in Townsville the evening prior. We had checked into our apartment early, settled into our room, with me attempting to put a weeks’ worth of washing on only to realize the apartment was not in working order (appliances simply not working or having parts, no curtains on floor to ceiling windows etc.).

After talking to the lady in reception, she upgraded us to another apartment where everything was working. We then started the move to that apartment: repacking our belongings that had been set up for the following three days, opening two heavy doors to exit our apartment and its alcove, then walking to the other end, opening another door that led to another alcove and our new apartment door. It was a great setup — but not when having to move multiple bags and suitcases to and fro. The reason I’m adding in this detail will be understood soon.

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Once settled in, I was exhausted, dehydrated and my stomach was aching. With what I had done that day already, all I wanted to do was go to the supermarket and buy some Powerade (the importance of that also comes later) and sit by the pool for the rest of the day. Lucy and I then headed for the supermarket. With my exhaustion, aches and pain and dehydration, and the majority of the parking lot closest to the shop actually full, I decided to park in one of the few disabled spaces, where I displayed my disabled parking permit.

I was glad I had decided to take it with me on this trip. Although traveling is mostly fun, for someone with a chronic medical condition who has had multiple major surgeries, it can sometimes get very tiring, particularly if my belly had kept me up the night before. Lucy and I grabbed out our reusable bags and started walking toward the shop entrance. We were only about two meters from the car when a middle-aged man who was accompanied by a middle-aged woman approached us and said ‘’Are you girls disabled? Are you?” in a very accusatory tone, looking us up and down.

I replied, “As a matter of fact I am.”

He said “Yeah, well what?” looking me up and down again, in another presumptuous tone. I like to pride myself on being a direct but polite person but when I’ve had enough, I have had enough. And this interrogation was the straw that broke the camel’s back that day.

In the past I’ve had comments said loud enough for me to hear but not directly at me, which I usually ignore and put down to them having no idea what some young people actually go through. I’ve also had snickers and sighs directed at me, but this blatant questioning was totally not OK! I felt a fight or flight sense come over me, as he was physically getting closer to us.

I lifted my shirt so my stomach area was exposed, which showed my ileostomy bag and the 27 cm scar that vertically runs from my pelvic section up past my belly button to this total stranger who was verbally attacking me in public, assuming I was not disabled when I have an Australian Disabled permit. I said “I have this.”

He looked at my belly and replied, “and…?” At that point I honestly thought he would give up questioning me, but he showed no sign of leaving us alone or apologizing. I then quickly and bluntly recapped my history, which if explained in detail can literally take hours.

“I have Crohn’s disease. I’ve had seven major surgeries, three of which were to save my life. I’ve had weight restrictions placed upon me and wasn’t allowed to lift my groceries at some points in my life, hence the disabled permit. My large bowel perforated, I’m missing two meters of intestine, I’ve hemorrhaged post-surgery, abscess drainage, hernia repair — and that’s only the beginning.” At that point the look on his face was a little shocked.

As I was explaining all this, another middle-aged man and woman started approaching the area, and the new man said something along the lines of “It’s not good, is it?” I turned to him and asked if he had Crohn’s too. He went on to say he knew how I felt all too well and it sounded all too familiar, demonstrating that he had gone through a very similar thing. I wished him all the best, looked at the man who had questioned me, who said nothing, then turned around and headed toward the store with Lucy by my side.

We stocked up on supplies, most importantly my trusty Powerade, which assists in replacing lost electrolytes and maintains hydration which is exceptionally important for somebody who has no large intestine that normally absorbs important salts and fluids. Then Lucy and I returned to our apartment, where I had a very salty snack, then swam in the pool and laid out, finally getting to enjoy Airlie Beach!

During the remainder of my trip, as I continued making my way to Brisbane by myself after three nights in Airlie Beach with Lucy, I was too scared to park in a disabled space again. The fear of being approached, interrogated and intimidated by an ignorant man old enough to be my father, and being humiliated in public with others being able to see and hear, put me off using a needed benefit I’m more than entitled to use. I have been to hell and back too many times to count. I am now almost 26 and since I was 17, I have fought so strongly to be where I am today, to be able to work hard and live out my dreams of traveling, and being able to walk into a store to buy my groceries and not need assistance.

I want this story to be about awareness and educating people who don’t understand that just because I can walk and look healthy, it doesn’t mean I’m not disabled. By definition a disability is a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities. Aside from the ailments I have mentioned, I experience so many things every single day due to my condition and medication that I simply live with and incorporate into my daily routine. I barely realize I do some of them anymore. On a good day, it’s just life; on a bad day, it can be enough to ruin me. Parking a little closer to the store entrance is sometimes the only thing that may help me that day, and I should feel more than comfortable enough to use the parking spaces without being harassed by the general public.

I hope one day a more inclusive symbol will appear on accessible parking spaces and toilets. I’ve heard comments said under people’s breath while I’m using disabled toilets; they have no idea my bag may have leaked under my shirt and feces is going everywhere, or I have an uncontrollable sudden bout of diarrhea and it needs to be emptied right away. There are more disabilities out there besides those that require the use of a wheelchair.

If you take anything away from my story, let it be this: never judge anyone and always choose to see the good in people. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” gets thrown around a lot, but not many people actually live by it. Generally it takes someone like me who has a silent illness, or a friend or family member who has seen someone they love go through something similar to actually live by this old advice.

Just as importantly, choose to see others around you as good people instead of assuming the worst. I’m not sure what went through the man’s mind when he saw me hop out of a car with an Australian Disabled permit in clear view or what he was trying to achieve by questioning us. Some people said he may have thought I was using my grandparents’ permit. It doesn’t matter what he thought, though. If he had chosen to see the good in my friend and I by not saying anything at all, I would have felt more comfortable and more supported by the wider community. But he chose to alienate instead. Life is not a competition; we are all in this together. Why not see the great in each other and help each other, rather than intimidate and hinder each other?

My entire trip was affected by that man’s words towards me, and my future no doubt will be too. Every time I’m having a bit of a tough day and feel I need to use a disabled parking space, I now will have a voice in my head asking if I should or not, to avoid another potential confrontation. With more and more serious chronic and rare illnesses and disabilities arising, it’s time to educate, be aware and be compassionate. You have absolutely no idea of the battle the “normal-looking” person standing next to you may be going through. If kind and compassionate aren’t your thing, never add to anyone’s hardships. Simply keep your thoughts to yourself.

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