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Handicapped parking and fear of harassment | ChroniCarly

Shortly after I began driving, my pediatric gastroenterologist gave me the paperwork I needed to obtain handicapped parking accommodation. In my state, drivers have the choice between permanent handicapped license plates, or a removable tag that hangs from the rear view mirror. A a teenager, the choice was easy: removable hang tags allowed me the ability to choose when I went into “disabled mode” publicly. Having illnesses that are invisible can be a blessing and a curse.

A man is seen walking from his car parking in a handicapped spot. The photographer has added a circle graphic and the text "not handicapped."

While it varies depending on my current disease activity, I generally only use my tag sparingly. Visiting the mall on a busy Saturday, I might use the tag to spare me the walk from the very back of the huge parking lot. I might choose to use the tag in situations where I expect to need it for my return to my car, for example, after a late night dinner when my stomach will likely be very grumpy, or when I’ve hit a wall with my fatigue. assault

I’ve actually been very lucky to avoid parking lot confrontations with strangers, but I hear stories all the time of people being hassled over using handicapped parking when they “don’t look sick.” The only harassment I’ve experienced that stands out in my mind was unfortunately by a policewoman at a theme park parking lot. I was visiting with two friends, who were already uncomfortable about using the handicapped spot (years later, we are no longer friends). After a few feet we were stopped by the cop, which made my friends even more uncomfortable. Luckily, the tag had my name printed on it, and I had ID, which I offered to show to the police officer. She decided that wasn’t necessary, but I wish she hadn’t hassled me in the first place. I was more shaken by the way my friends reacted and the fact that I needed to stand up for myself to the cop, who ostensibly was there to make the park safe and enjoyable for everyone (myself included). Instead, it was a demoralizing was to start the day.




Recently I spent a few hours searching for my idea of the holy grail: comfortable shoes that would stand up to my walk to the train and the 7,000 steps I average in a day. I felt like Goldilocks: those shoes were too ugly, those weren’t versatile enough, those wouldn’t accommodate my narrow heels, those would cause painful blisters on my toes, those were over $200. When I made a trip to the mall to return 3 pairs of shoes, I couldn’t find an acceptably close parking spot, but there was a handicapped space. I parked there and walked into the department store. I tried on several more pairs of shoes that day, but still didn’t find anything worth buying.

The parking lot was crowded when I left the mall. I slunk back to my car, feeling defeated, exhausted, and a little shaky since it was time for my dinner and I’d run out of purse snacks. Years after receiving my handicapped parking credential, I’m still self conscious about it – hoping to avoid those nasty comments from strangers. I climbed into the car, sitting on a foam cushion with a cut out to relieve pressure on my tailbone, and adjusted my heating pad behind my back. That’s when it struck me. I’d spent hours searching for acceptable orthopedic shoes, was using two devices to make driving more comfortable (not to mention the bucket of supplies I always keep in the backseat in case of IBD accidents), yet I was still feeling anxious about being harassed for not deserving to use the handicapped parking space.

People with invisible illnesses are victims of an ableist society. But it’s especially sad how that conditioning worms its way into our own minds. I don’t want to walk around brawling with everyone who questions me, but I do want to be comfortable in my own skin. (It’s bad enough that illness makes me physically uncomfortable.) The aids I use are invaluable to me and allow me an improved level of freedom and access , but I’ve become so accustomed to them that they are nearly invisible to me now. In some ways that’s a positive – I don’t want to constantly feel different and unable, but sometimes the validation I need becomes invisible too.



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38 Responses to Handicapped parking and fear of harassment

  1. […] Handicapped parking and fear of harassment | ChroniCarly. […]

  2. Sandy says:

    Oh yes, I know those feelings.
    Ps. I found clarks sandals with Nike air technology ‘roof dance’ means I can walk further, very comfortable and light.

  3. What an important topic, Carly! This is the source of endless “You won’t believe what I just heard from the driver in the next parking spot…” conversations among heart disease circles, too. If only we had the good sense to need neck braces or crutches so that our invisible diagnoses might meet the exacting parking suitability criteria of an ‘ableist’ society. Thanks for introducing me to that word, by the way – what I’d otherwise also heard described as “healthy privilege”.

    Having a young newly paraplegic in-law who needs a wheelchair but is able to drive with hand-controls gave me this additional perspective: what I think we actually need are TWO TYPES of handicapped parking spots:

    – extra-wide spots as we have now but specifically for those who need that extra space to open a car door wide enough to swing a portable wheelchair to a safe area just outside the driver’s door

    – regular-sized spots for those who do not need that extra-wide space for safe wheelchair access, but who do need to be very close to the destination venue for all the reasons you list – and more.


    • Carly says:

      I’ve thought of getting a cane, so at least I have something to hit people with 😉

    • Carly says:

      And your point about the need for people to have space to exit in wheelchair specialty vans is exactly the main reason why I don’t grab the disabled spots without considering a bunch of factors – how I’m doing, but also how many other spots are available. I hate to take the last one if I know I will be parked for a while because I don’t want someone else to end up trapped.

    • Brenda says:

      I need the extra wide area because of needing to open my dor all the way to get my leg in. Bad back, and sciatic pain.

    • Amanda says:

      YES! I agree with having 2 kinds of spots as well. I have chronic pain and have very bad days when I use the spots but I feel guilty. This is because I know how important those spots are when you are getting a wheel chair out. MY ex husband was in a wheel chair and so was my mother. Those wide spots were essential to being able to lift and transfer my mom to her chair.

  4. Deborah says:

    I don’t drive anymore. Have been using AFO’s for 20+ years, 7 with a cane, also. I would haul myself up the bus steps, (Everest) sit in a handicapped or elderly seat, and the moment I sat down, someone would tell me to give up my seat to an elderly person, who hauled herself up the stairs, as I just did. I started lifting my pant legs: Which brace do you want, the right one or the left? Now, since it was your idea, give the woman your seat. I am a NYer, when we get ticked off, which is not often, we use our mouths.

  5. My mother is using a handicapped tag at the moment following an accident. People watch like hawks when she pulls into the spot. This is good and this is bad. But I can only imagine how it must feel when the challenge isn’t visible. Your story and hers has made me think twice about the snap judgements I know I’ve held at times. ~Catherine

    • Annette says:

      Great post and discussion. I was fairly young (49) when I had my cardiac arrest so visually I look normal or NOT disabled in any way. I was yelled at by a senior one afternoon. I had just pulled in and he stood watching me park. I hadn’t even gotten out of my vehicle yet and he approached my car and said how dare I take this spot and who the H did I think I was? I was really shaken but said something like I don’t look disabled enough for you? I pulled my shirt aside to show him my ICD and explain I have suffered a brain injury and am not able to walk without my cane. This man was so embarrassed and honestly should have been! I hadn’t left my car yet! It’s horrible how we are treated. Now I do my best not to use the handicapped spots unless I am really having a hard time walking.
      Sad but true. I have to say I have seen many people both young and old using these spots and now that I am a user, I never question why as honestly prior to my event I did. If I had seen a person walking normally from a car in a handicapped spot I would wonder why. How very very wrong of me to do.

  6. nicole says:

    I can relate to this. I came across this article after something that happened to me last night. I had a nasty note left on my car. It makes me feel like I shouldn’t even use my handicap permit. I have numerous invisible issues. It took me a while to even apply even though my drs encouraged it. The thing instead of getting upset or angry with some person who put this on. I just pray & hope they don’t go through what I do or their family members don’t. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. My friends & family were more upset than I was when they found this out.

  7. jcerrone says:

    Every time I pull into a handicap parking spot, especially when my top is down and I have my music up, I always get stares. But once I pull out my crutches I get a little more sympathy. I’ve actually had people say rude things to me even being on crutches. I even wrote a post about it: http://www.itsjustabadday.com/2014/05/16/dont-judge-my-handicap-parking-spot/

    It’s ridiculous how rude people can be. It’s even more ridiculous that we have to feel nervous or worried to use something that can help us so much.

  8. Alex says:

    So glad to hear that there are others out there. Yup…wrote a post…called Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. It’s hard when people don’t really see you.

  9. Kini says:

    I totally understand y your situation. I’m now in a wheel chair before I got this point, I walked, and I could not wall a distance for fatigue would set in. But now using a standard sedan car,I get blocked out if there are no spaces sealed off when I park. Try maneuver a wheelchair in a tiny space. I don’t want to scratch the paint on either vehicle. That what irritates my the most. Sorry for the vent. I’ll pray for you to get past your embarrassment of using your placard.

    • Carly says:

      Hi Kini! Thank you for your comment. You don’t have to apologize. So many small things are frustrating, and they all add up. It’s even more frustrating when the general public doesn’t understand why we’d be upset. Wishing you smooth travels. :)

  10. Mary says:

    I’ve been cursed with narrow heels as well. The only shoes I find that fit are mary janes, which hold my feet in from swaying side to side causing callouses or a brand called Unstructured from the orthopedic shoe store in NY called Eneslow. They have cute ortho shoes, pricey, but worth checking out. http://eneslow.com/

  11. Cynthia Sublett says:

    I was cursed out in the parking lot of a grocery store because the jerk driving said “I didn’t look sick” ….. I hate people that judge ….. I wish it had happen in the parking lot of the pharmacy …. He could have seen my two grocery bags filled with expensive meds to keep me vertical !!!

    • Carly says:

      I am SO afraid of being yelled at, or even worse, hurt physically. I think that is the biggest barrier to me using my parking tag!
      Often I am feeling okay to go into the store, but struggle getting back out to my car to go home. I wish my illness, pain, and fatigue would give me more advance notice.

  12. Kevin says:

    This is a great post! Awareness needs to be brought up about this subject. I did have some thoughts and comments on it though. I’m physically and visually disabled from birth. I used to be in a wheelchair and by the grace of God and many surgeries I’m able to get around slightly without the chair anymore. When I drive I rely heavily on handicapped spots as I have serious trouble walking in general but far distances even more so. I don’t know what it’s like to have an “invisible” illness but when I was in college I’d always see seemingly able bodied people get out of cars in handicapped spots and I’d scratch my head. Fortunately I know that not all disabilities are visible and really no one should have to be put in a situation where they have to prove or disclose what their disability is. That’s just wrong and embarrassing. I do think that one of the major reasons for society to think this way is because of all the fraudulent people that are taking these spaces illegally. I don’t know about any of you but I know plenty who either do it or have done it to get that good spot! They use their grandparents or family members sticker. Disgusting if you ask me! I’ve had people say to me, ” oh you have a handicapped sticker?” “You’re so lucky!” Really? Please! I would gladly exchange it to be able to walk from the furthest spot in the universe! So I get it and feel your pain on this topic.

    I know you’re disability as I think you called it is the “invisible” kind sucks too, but I’m a little confused at your statements about going into “disabled mode.” I too, will take a regular spot close to a handicapped spot if it’s free cause I feel it’s just the right thing to do if I’m able to swing it. I’ll also not take the handicapped spots that are meant for wheelchair accessible vehicles. I know this post is about parking spots and all and I’m not diminishing anyone’s “invisible” disability but from someone who isn’t invisible to society I highly doubt that a disability at all is any kind of blessing as you called it. Visible or not. I get what you were trying to say but, to me it came out wrong I think. Maybe it’s just me being resentful that I can’t ever go into “disabled mode” when I choose to. To conclude, I’d rather deal with some stares for twenty seconds walking through a parking lot and once I’m where I’m going everyone’s no staring at me anymore then to get that treatment 24/7. I get those looks getting out of my car in handicapped spot and I’m clearly handicapped. Then I also get those looks and stares everywhere else I go. Not fun! I’m sure it’s not for you either. I apologize in advance if I offended you or anyone. It wasn’t my intention at all.

    In the end, for the shaming to stop. I think we all need to not judge a book by it’s cover and also regulate these spots somehow. The answer to that I don’t have, but as long as they’re abused by people without any type of disability (visual or not), the average person might be skeptical. Sad but true. Thanks for the post again.

    • Carly says:

      I’m sorry if my comments were confusing or made you upset in any way. I think what I meant by saying “disabled mode” was that it would be giving a visible sign to others (mostly strangers) when I used my handicapped parking tag. A friend has pointed out that many invisible illnesses actually do have outward signs, but these are easy to ignore or miss, especially if the general public is not educated, or does not take the time to pat attention.
      I definitely acknowledge that being able to conceal my illness and pain at many times is a type of benefit I enjoy that other people with different conditions cannot choose. We need the public to be kinder to everyone in general, really.

  13. Vanessa says:

    I feel like this constantly. I use my handicap sticker daily, but I hate it because of the dirty looks I get. I had one woman stand with her arms crossed behind my van once watching me. I wanted to cry. I’m 29 and look completely healthy and usually have my young kids in tow. I have a pacemaker, I’ve suffered four mini-strokes and I battle and an auto-immune disease daily. Walking around in a store wears me out physically, leaves me shaky, short of breath and I have passed out in the past from the physical exertion. But every time someone stares me down I feel guilt, like maybe I shouldn’t park there. Or I need to explain why I do and defend myself. It’s awful. By the time I get back to my car and I’m struggling, I no longer care. It’s then I remind myself if anyone confronts me that my medical history is none of their damn business… However it doesn’t make the dirty looks and pointed states bother me any less.

  14. Diana-Lynn says:

    I know what you mean. I had a former “friend” who used his *inyourfaceobvious* disability to command/demand favour, and yet when I had issues because I had an invisible (thank God, temporary!) disability, I felt that because it wasn’t visually apparant, that I didn’t deserve it…

    This planet is so freaking backa$$wards it’s not even funny………….


    • Mark Conlen says:

      I had a stroke 3 years ago that at times my left knee that was already effected by a football injury locks up after driving for a bit. I am 51 and in ok shape but i am waiting for on of these people to confront me. I don’t always us my tag but there are occasions when i need to

  15. You dont have a plate or a placard, my camera and I are gonna make you famous.

  16. Mark says:

    1. “Handicap Parking” is not a Right
    2. Those “Handicap Parking” spots are STOLEN FOR YOU by the government from the land owners.
    3. “Abelist Society” is BS, just as homophobia, islamphobia, and all the other PC-phobias.

    YOU ARE NOT A VICTIM of Society. You are a leech (“free rider” in economic parlance), and that’s why you feel guilty. Stop blaming others for your guilt, and stop expecting us to just accept your “welfare” attitude.

    You have NO RIGHT to take someone else’s property for your own personal pleasure, benefit, or easement.

    • Rebecca Brooks Boyd says:

      What an absolutely ridiculous thing to say. I find it difficulty to believe that anyone would be willing to display their stupidity at such a level as a public forum.

      • Mary Swehla says:

        Who is this Mark guy? He sounds like a complete jerk. I also have a handicap card and also the plates. Had heart attack 5 years ago and have 7 stents. Cannot walk very far without running out of energy or strength. There have been times when I have not been able to find handicap parking and park in regular spots and have to grab a cart to hang on. By the time I finish shopping for groceries, I am wiped out. Don’t judge people by how they look. Had a woman give me a look one day and make a comment that I didn’t quite hear. When I asked her to repeat, she said never mind; she had finally seen my plates! I am 76 years old, not a 20 year old. If I feel okay, I try to park somewhere else, otherwise, I park in handicap.

  17. Janice says:

    My daughter is Paralympian Summer Mortimer. She gets nasty notes, dirty looks and comments and has had her car keyed. People need to think before they speak or act. She had her accident at the age of 15 and has to spend the rest of her life dealing with the pain…she does not need the pain caused by ignorance as well.

  18. Mary Johnson says:

    Just read this post. And I found it to be very informative. I was at a local restaurant with my parents who are both handicapped due to health issues. My mom has had numerous heart attacks and with the combination of the meds it causes her legs to swell to the point of NOT being able to see her ankles. My dad started kidney dialysis in July. A gentleman was going to write me a nasty note about USING a handicapped spot….I hadn’t put the handicapped placard on the driver’s side as it’s my parents handicapped placard and my dad and mom were both in the vehicle with me. I asked him to LOOK at my vehicle…and he says OH I DIDN”T SEE IT THERE. That’s because you were TOO QUICK to make a judgement and an assumption. I too am starting to have back issues from a car accident where I had broken my back. But I’m still too stubborn to get one.

  19. Tarahkins says:

    Why do you feel like you “need validation”? Do you question if you deserve to have the special authorization? If you question it, does that mean that you actually don’t need it? I think you gotta stop being hung up on if society validates your issues, say fuck em, and especially when it comes to someone, ANYONE trying to challenge the validity of your circumstances, then make it be on them to DISPROVE your qualifications, don’t let them put on you the need to PROVE yourself and your issues to them. Example: They say they don’t believe youre in such condition to ” need” the parking spot… You go on about your business, if they decide to challenge, I’m sure they would then contact authorities, who would then question you, and then would determine (once you showed your authorizations) that you validly use the parking spot. The person who decided to challenge you then feels like a total Douchebag, you still got your business handled, and maybe taught that person a lesson as well… It’s a win\win all the way around…

    • msaxolotl says:

      Yah…I totally get it. And, totally agree with Trains. I have been working through this with my therapist. Not getting hung up on what other people think, somedays I am fine other’s less so. I recently upgraded to a license plate and somehow feel less a criminal. So, I guess we are programmed that if we are not bleeding or dragging ourselves with our hands across the parking lot we are not valid.

      Recently I read this great little book, called the 4 Agreements, which helped affirm some theories I had on why we respond to situations in certain ways, and one rule that stuck out is: #2 Don’t Take Anything Personally. People who spew on you spew on everyone, including themselves…it’s their own problem. And, after working with that rule…it is so true, even when I spew on someone, in reflection it is some unresolved issue in me.

      The other rules are:
      #1 Be Impeccable With Your Word.
      #3 Don’t Make Assumptions.
      #4 Always Do Your Best.

  20. I’m young (45) and one day had an elderly gentleman lay into verbally for several minutes about parking in a handicap spot before I even got out of my vehicle. When he was finished, I got out of my truck, grabbed my cane, and made the following comment, “maybe if I would have stayed outside when an elderly gentleman, such as yourself, started a cooking fire, then after he had left his house he realised that his wife was still inside, but instead I went inside and began searching, just maybe I wouldn’t have broken my back when the floor collapsed. But then again that WAS my job as a firefighter. Have a nice day sir”.

  21. Lance says:

    I am a 100% service connected veteran with many issues (all unseen) have an enlarged heart due to uncontrolled high blood pressure which on some days takes everything out of me, others i can park at the back of the parking lot to get some extra steps. I had a guy throw his leg on his front seat and make a dirty comment because i was in a handicapped spot, only after i showed him my VA card did he feel about 2 feet tall and i pointed out my tag. I am also 38 so it is like i am too young to have an issue as well. I also rarely use handicapped parking i have even had people cace in my roof on my subaru i had and currently dented my hood on my taurus. The worst part is i am not a confrontational person due to my PTSD so it is not from me being a jerk to anyone. People just suck sometimes…