The other day I went to the mall with a few pals, and one of my least favourite things happened. I was having a particularly bad pain day, so we decided to park in one of the accessible spots to cut down on walking. Before I even got out of the car, though, there was a random stranger yelling at us. I was still getting out of the vehicle during most of the exchange that followed (I move slowly, sue me) but it went a little something like this:
Stranger: *irritated* You know you’re parked in an accessible spot, right?
Sister: Yes, we have a permit.
Stranger: *more aggressive now* Yeah, but does it even belong to any of you?
Sister: *annoyed, but calm* Yes, my sister is disabled. If it weren’t ours, we wouldn’t park here.
Me: *cane in hand, yelling* YOUNG PEOPLE CAN BE DISABLED, TOO.
The guy ended up apologizing – as he should have – and for that, I guess I’m grateful. But the thing is, even though this kind of thing is totally unacceptable, it happens all the time. This definitely isn’t the first time something like this has happened to a disabled person; hell, it’s not even the first time it happened to me.
Let’s look at a few examples, shall we?
Two years ago, there was an article published by CBC about Natasha Hope-Simpson, a young woman in Halifax who received a nasty note after having the audacity to walk away from her car after parking in an accessible parking spot. This happened even though she has a prosthetic leg, AND an accessible parking permit.
Last year, there was another article published by CBC about Dan Trivett, a disabled Halifax resident who also received a note after parking in an accessible spot. It read, “I saw you walking. You seem to walk fine. Show some respect”. Once again, this happened despite the fact that Trivett is disabled and had an accessible parking pass displayed in the front of his vehicle.
Earlier this month, there was a story about a unit in Toronto trying to catch people who are cheating the system and misusing accessible parking permits. While I definitely believe that non-disabled folks who abuse the system should be held accountable, I was puzzled when one of the parking enforcement officers explained that they sometimes have to “hid[e] in alleys waiting to catch able-bodied people misusing the permits”.
Now, think back to my experience in that mall parking lot.
What do all of these stories have in common?
Don’t get me wrong – I get it. I understand that a lot of these people probably have good intentions, but folks, impact > intent. When you call someone out for using an accessible permit because they ~don’t look~ disabled to you, you may think that you’re helping disabled folks by stopping people from abusing the system. What you’re really doing, though, is reinforcing the belief that disability has to look a certain way… and that’s simply not true. Disabilities come in many different forms; some are apparent – meaning, you see signs of them right away. For example, mobility aids like wheelchairs, canes, and walkers, often signal a disability. However, not all disabilities require the use of mobility aids, nor are all disabilities immediately visible. That’s right, this is a friendly reminder that invisible disabilities are a thing!
Multiple Sclerosis, fibromyalgia, mental illness, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, asthma… the list goes on and on. There are so many reasons why someone may need to use an accessible parking spot, and chances are that a lot of the time you won’t know any of those reasons just by looking at them – nor do you need to know! It sucks that people cheat the system – trust me, as someone who has seen it happen, and who has been hurt by it, I know! But at the end of the day, when you see someone parking in an accessible spot, if they have a permit, it’s absolutely none of your business. You don’t get to judge, shame, or demean someone just because they don’t fit your narrow-minded view of what disability looks like. Contrary to popular belief, disabled people don’t owe you explanation, justification, or proof of our disabilities. You’re not entitled to our stories, and we don’t deserve your assumptions.
So please, for the love of all that is good in this world, think before you speak. Next time you see someone parking in an accessible spot, and you don’t think they should be there, take a moment. Do they have a permit or a license plate indicating they can park there? If not, by all means call and report them. But if they do? Keep your mouth shut and mind your own business, because take it from me, it’s exhausting for us when you don’t.
Thanks in advance, folks.
Want to learn more about invisible disabilities? Check out these resources:
- But You Don’t Look Sick
- Everyday Health
- Invisible Disability Project
- Invisible Illness Week
- Rick Hansen
TL;DR: Don’t be a jerk. Don’t make assumptions. After all, you know what Dwight says about them.