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To the People Who Stare When I Use an Accessible Parking Space

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Whenever I pull my car into a parking lot and see an unoccupied accessible parking space, I go through a huge range of emotions. At first, it’s relief at having found a spot. But then I approach the parking space with trepidation, because I don’t look like the stereotypical user of one of these spaces. I have long brown wavy hair, and look relatively young for my age. Music playing, sunglasses on, kids in the backseat, I drive my car in quickly, or take advantage of my vehicle’s backup camera and park backwards. People in the parking lot are watching me as I take up the space. Perhaps they’re thinking that I’m parking illegally, without a permit. Based on the looks I get from some people, I feel like I don’t belong in that parking space and shouldn’t be using it. I feel like I’m being judged.

Even when I present the permit and place it on my dashboard, I still feel like I’m breaking the law. I get more dirty looks. Are they thinking that I’m abusing the use of a permit that doesn’t belong to me? By the time I pull my things together and am ready to get out of the car, I’m not surprised to see a few of the onlookers continue to watch me, some overtly while others more surreptitiously. They probably wonder, What is her disability?

That is, until I slowly exit the driver’s seat with a painful grimace on my face and my cane in hand. Slowly, I lock my car doors and gather all of my belongings on the crook of my left arm. My right hand holds my cane. I walk away from my vehicle and begin to feel the justification I deserve from these spectators. The cane in hand seems to validate me. Phew! It feels like judgment time has ended. Until the next time I park in a public space.

That day happened a few months ago, when I was leaving my health club. Since the accessible parking space is very close to the front doors of the gym, I usually leave my cane in the car. Without my cane, I walk with a severe left-leaning limp. Walking without my cane, I’m told I look like I have “something wrong with my back” or I “must be in a lot of pain.” My walk is slow and arduous. But since the distance between my car and the front doors of the gym is close, most days I can manage without my cane.

On one particular morning, as I was leaving the gym, there was a man walking a few steps behind me. I took the three steps down from the gym doors like I usually do, holding onto the stair rail and placing one foot on a step, followed by the other foot. When both feet are planted on the same step, I find my balance before descending to the next step below. Good leg to heaven, bad leg to hell, I was taught. I heard this man’s footsteps closely behind me the entire way down. When my feet landed on the pavement, I began my slow and limping gait towards my car. The man was still behind me. As I unlocked the driver’s door and began to sit down on the driver’s seat before lifting my left leg in, this man came right up to my door, stood in front of my face and said, “Like you really need this space.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was shocked and momentarily speechless. “Yes, I do need this space, actually,” I said. Perhaps I should’ve stopped there, but I didn’t. “I had a cancer growing in my leg, and good part of my femur was cut off, so I now have a prosthetic…” I said, but stopped my sentence when I saw him shake his head, as if I was blabbering on and he didn’t believe me. Then he turned around and began to walk away. I was fuming. I started my car, rolled down the window and shouted, “Thank you for asking.” He shook his head.

I drove away feeling frazzled. In the hours after this incident, I felt deeply hurt at being treated this way. Hadn’t I already been through enough in losing my leg? Of course this man would have no idea what I’ve been through, but he chose to question me even after seeing how severely I limp.

I lost three major muscle groups in a surgery to cut out a rare, malignant cancer growing on the top of my left femur. Because of the loss of these muscles and an internal prosthetic, I will walk with a cane or forearm crutch for the rest of my life. I endure pain and discomfort daily, and my mobility is limited. It took me many months to embrace and eventually own this unique disability of mine, which was challenging enough. But the stares and dirty looks I get when people see me driving into a reserved space for persons with disabilities have been difficult as well.

I wish these people would understand that appearances aren’t everything. I may look fine from a seated position, but as soon as I stand up, everyone can see that I’m unable to walk, stand and move like an able-bodied person. I wish anyone who might be thinking I’m abusing the parking space would take a second and make the opposite assumption: that I need it. No questions should be asked. Having a disability can be hard enough as it is. I wish they didn’t have to make it tougher.

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Originally published: November 21, 2016
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