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To Anyone Afraid to Get a Disabled Placard Because You're Worried About Judgment

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I see it almost daily. In the health communities I’m in, someone will say “I need to get a disabled placard but I’m afraid to.” I see the images of awful notes left on the car of someone who uses a placard. You can find examples hereherehere and here. I could keep going.

This needs to stop.

I too had tremendous ambivalence about asking my doctor for a disabled placard. I didn’t even consider it an option until my mobility issues started in 2013. I was at the point where I had to drive between my classes and buildings on the college campus where I was teaching because I could no longer manage the walking. Anyone who has been to a college campus knows that finding a parking spot, just one spot, is worth its weight in gold. But I was having to find multiple parking spots all day while trying to get to class on time, and I would inevitably only be able to find a spot far in the back, which made my driving to get closer to the building pointless. It was becoming a daily crisis for me as I was desperately struggling to have enough energy to keep teaching and getting through the day. I could not waste all the energy I had trying to walk any distance and failing. 

So I went to the doctor I trusted the most to ask him to sign the form I printed off the DMV website. Yet, I felt completely ridiculous asking for a disabled placard, no matter how desperately I needed it. I even told him how absurd it felt to ask him for it. He signed it without question. I still was not comfortable with the term “disabled” then and I was still trying to pretend I could physically do what I was longer able to do. “Passing” as able-bodied was significantly easier than trying to live with disability (or so I thought at the time), and I was coasting on denial as long as I could. But I asked him to sign the form because I needed to be able to work. I justified it to myself by saying, “I’ll only use it on the days I really need it. I won’t take up a spot for someone who really needs it. I’m not technically disabled, and I don’t want to endure anyone’s ridicule or derision because I ‘look fine.’ I won’t use it very often.”

But I was wrong. I was and am disabled. I got the placard and ended up using it every day because it was a life saver. I wished I had gotten it sooner when I needed it, long before I finally talked to my doctor about it. I wish worrying about what others would say or the fear that someone would leave a nasty note on my car wouldn’t have gotten in the way of me using an invaluable resource I needed.

There are many who are going through this right now and are debating whether they should get a placard and if they want to deal with the discrimination that can come with it. They probably read these horror stories every day and see the nasty notes people leave on someone’s car because not enough people understand that most disabilities and chronic conditions are invisible.

I imagine there are a variety of reasons people leave notes on cars or make discriminatory comments to the disabled. They may believe they are standing up for those who are “actually disabled,” acting as vigilante warriors protecting a “privilege” that only a select few are “entitled” to. They may believe that people are exploiting the system for personal gain or even feel envy that someone has access to a prime parking spot anyone would want. They may assume all disabilities are visible and that only individuals who require a mobility aid qualify as disabled.

When someone leaves a note on a car or makes a comment, they are making rash judgments about someone they’ve never even met and enacting a gross injustice on someone who faces daily obstacles already.

This needs to stop.

I count myself  “lucky” because I’ve never had a note left on my car. I had to start using a cane right after I got my disabled placard so my disability was no longer invisible. I have gotten harsh stares or questioning glances when I have used the motorized carts at stores. The last time I drove myself to a store and used the electric cart (it’s been years now since I could do this), an elderly man got angry with me because I used the last one. I needed it as much as he did. I was just trying to pick up my medications without falling or fainting in a store. Now, when I leave the house I have to use my wheelchair almost all the time.

I bring my own chair now.

When someone who doesn’t “look disabled” uses a disabled placard or an electric cart, we need to remember these points:

1. Most disabilities and chronic conditions are invisible. Often, you cannot “see” kidney disease, cognitive disabilities, neurological conditions, cancer, prosthetic limbs, etc. All of these and more qualify as disabilities, and these individuals are allowed access to a disabled placard to make their lives and the world that much easier to navigate.

2. Police officers, parking attendants, etc. can ask someone to show them the permit people are required to carry when they use a placard. Other people do not need to enact their own form of vigilante justice. There is a system in place to make sure that those who use the placards are permitted to use them.

3. No one is entitled to an explanation or “proof” of someone’s disability. No one is required to “prove” their disability to anyone. Believing that someone is required to explain their disability is pure ableism.

4. If someone would like to help those with disabilities, there are better ways to do this than by leaving notes on someone’s car or making disdainful comments. You can support legislation that helps the disabled. We have the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S., but the law is not perfect. We need more laws and protection so people with disabilities can enjoy the same privileges and access those without disabilities enjoy. You can spread the word that many disabilities are invisible and learn more about why disability and illness are often considered “invisible.” You can educate yourself about all that qualifies as a disability and see that one in five people in the U.S. are disabled.

5. Those with disabilities face hurdles every day the able-bodied cannot fathom. If you are concerned that the disabled are getting a “privilege” that is somehow “undeserved,” you are entitled to your opinion but please don’t act on it. Our society treats the disabled as a protected class and enables them tools to improve their quality of life so they can be full participants in our society. The ADA was only passed relatively recently, in 1990, and it provided legal protection from discrimination and made accessibility in public places for the disabled the law. We should celebrate the fact that those with disabilities have access to tools that improve their lives.

For any of you out there who are putting off getting the placard because you fear the ridicule or are struggling to recognize yourself as “disabled,” I know what you are going through, but we must use every means available to us to help us succeed. Even if someone does leave a nasty note on your car or makes a disparaging comment to you, you can keep fighting and you can survive it. It comes from ignorance and we can only hope that someday they will understand the injustice of their act. You are making the right choice in protecting your health.

Don’t let anyone diminish the choices you have to make to achieve a higher quality of life. 

Follow this journey on Kind of Broken.

Originally published: July 1, 2016
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