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Not all disabilities are visible, so think before you judge someone

Sharisse Tracey’s work has appeared at The New York Times.com, Ebony.com, Babble.com, The Los Angeles Review and various other online publications. Sharisse is an Army wife; mother of four, writer, counselor and educator who still doesn...

Invisible disabilities are real and they deserve respect — not judgement

Somewhere between WinCo Foods and Walmart, an anonymous person, with far too much time on his or her hands, left a note on my car that was parked in a disabled spot.

It read: "I saw you park here and quickly go into the store. Obviously you are NOT physically handicapped, yet you parked in a handicapped spot. Yes I see you have a placard, but unless you are the handicapped person, you are not to park in the spots. That's just LAZY. I called the Police Department and gave them your license plate #... I hope they get here in time to ticket you!" I did not notice the 3-by-5 note until I got home. My minivan had large windows. The small piece of paper was tucked under the windshield.

My first thought was to drive back to both stores to try to somehow identify the idiot who wrote the note. Amid my anger and irrational thoughts, I convinced myself the perpetrator might still be in one of the parking lots stalking other patrons with the assumed preferred parking — such as a wounded warrior, perhaps with no visible scars; a pregnant mom whose belly wasn’t quite poking out; or the employee of the month with his/her uniform covered up. In Washington state, where my military family was stationed, there were a lot of reserved parking spaces in shopping centers for injured veterans and others for which the state provided parking.

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I wished I’d been more aware of my surroundings and saw the note before I left the big box store. Or, I had hoped that the police had shown up before I pulled away, so that they could have checked my license and verified that I was, in fact, parked legally. Being judged for my invisible disability is not new — and I’m sick of it.

Years ago, when I first started driving my disabled mother around, I retrieved the car in advance and picked her up curbside, eliminating the extra walk and unnecessary pain. People stared me down, gave me the side eye and shook their heads as if to say: "Shame on you for using a disabled spot, youngster." Back then, I laughed, but I always felt justified once my mom surfaced. She was twice my age, larger than me and her disabilities would never be questioned.

The first time a doctor suggested a placard for me, preferred parking was the furthest thing from my mind. I was much too self-conscious to consider myself disabled. The two didn’t go together. Weeks later, when I convinced myself to use it for the first time, I instantly thought, who will justify this for me? I am not enough. But after I suffered needlessly, I became less concerned with what others thought and more attuned with how I felt. I was in pain. The onlookers couldn’t feel my suffering, see my ailments or know my limitations. I knew I had to be my own justification. I learned to be OK with that.

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Still, in those few short moments, when I first read the note, I remembered those people who shook their heads and all those times I questioned myself for not being physically stronger when I was sick. Why did I need a placard when so many people visibly needed theirs? The only answer I could come up with was, "Because I did, dammit."

Are the hours I spend at the hospital any less important because only the patients and staff in the nurse’s tower can attest to my illness? What about the countless appointments with doctors and specialists for years — being treated like a yo-yo between military and civilian physicians? What gives any of us the right to judge or know the medical history of strangers?

While it may be tempting to some to size up a situation, we might want to ponder the true implications of what we are doing. Not every disability or illness is visible to the naked eye. For me, as a wife and mother — caring for both my disabled mother and a special needs child, who I’m constantly told doesn’t look “special” (as if special has a look) — I have a hard time keeping up with what’s going on in my own house. I can’t imagine worrying about where someone is or isn’t parking or why. Who has that kind of time? What made the note even more upsetting was the person didn’t use the politically correct terminology for all of their busybody-ness. How long ago did we stop saying handicapped?

My suggestion is this: Maybe instead of spending time writing notes, telling strangers they don’t deserve to park in designated spots, perhaps we can educate ourselves on the proper terms used to identify people with disabilities and minding one's Ps and Qs. After all, I’ve purposely not identified my reason for needing the parking decal in an effort to further illustrate that the disability here is not the only issue. That’s between my doctor and me.

The bigger concern, as I see it, is that folks need to spend less time paying attention to what other people are doing and more time worrying about themselves. That is what we teach our children from a very young age, isn’t it? Mind your business. If they’re not bothering you, don’t bother them. Perhaps, don’t judge my disability. And while we are at it, don’t judge me.

Invisible disabilities are real and they deserve respect — not judgement

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