Growing up in the 80’s, I was educated in “handicap awareness”. My second grade class was visited by a local woman who was vision impaired. She brought her seeing-eye dog and we learned not to pet the dog, because he was working. It was an awakening to realize there were people around me who had an extra level of challenges in their daily life.
Forty years later I’ve had to relearn how to speak and think about different abilities. And I’m learning it from the inside. My own family is heavily impacted by invisible disabilities. I have three autistic kids who could mostly pass as neurotypical. They’re verbal and sociable and to the uninitiated, they might not seem autistic. I wish we could walk around with a placard around our necks announcing our autism!
I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought about putting one of the kids in a wheelchair so people would see us through the proper lense. You see my “healthy” kids, bouncing around CVS, speaking way too loud and then getting furious over a stubbed toe. That equals “naughty” not “disabled”. I get all kinds of nasty looks for not controlling my children when they are just not wired to interact with the world in the same way as others. That’s their disability.
We are fortunate to qualify for disability parking which is a privilege that I appreciate every single day. I love that hang tag more than birthday cake and a Sephora gift card rolled into one! It means that I can take my boys to the store or a museum and know that we will get from the car to the building safely. And if we need to bail because someone is melting down, we are able to book it out of there.
Today, I was parked at my son’s school in one of the disability spots. I was standing beside my car, looking able-bodied, waiting for my special needs kid to be escorted out by his aide. A woman idled her car in the lot behind me. She yelled to me,
“Excuse me! Do you have a disability tag?”
“Yup! I do!”
“Because it doesn’t look like you have one!”
Really lady? Can you see the huge yellow window decal that reads “Special Needs Children on Board” or the equally obvious “Autism Society” magnet?
Me, again, forcing a grin, “I have a tag!”
A moment later, someone left a spot next to me and this woman parked. I watched her get out and she shot me a snarly glare. She had a cane. Her need for the special parking was obvious. And I’m betting that irritated look on her face means she’s thinking she deserved that spot more than we did.
I wish that I had told her that earlier this year, I proposed that the school should provide additional parking for the disabled members of the school community and I won! There’s now an EXTRA blue space for all of us. Because of my pushy emails. You’re welcome!
My own struggle with auto-immune disease is a tale for another day, but I have come to think of myself as having a disability. Much of the time you see me, you’d never guess. Yet there are many days when I am in bed or shuffling around in pain. Is my disability less than someone who is in a wheelchair or missing an arm? Or who is autistic?
I don’t think one’s disability is like that awful pain scale we’re all asked about at the hospital.
Please rate your disability on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being barely disabled and 10 being the most disabled you’ve ever felt in your life.
Speaking for my tribe of invisibly disabled people, we slide up and down that scale, but we’re always on it. Our lives are impacted and there’s an innate, daily struggle that makes typical situations some exponent more difficult.
We can’t always expect people to treat us with the sensitivity we need. But I think there is a trend towards greater compassion. I see it with the increased presence of emotional support dogs. And with the new ADA policies that allow people with challenges the chance to enjoy community attractions.
I hope that woman from the parking lot will see my car again tomorrow and think about why I must be parked there. That maybe our lives are more similar than she assumed. Also, I’m hoping that I don’t have a new enemy because I am already flush, thank you very much.