“Do you know the fine for using someone else’s handicapped parking permit is $300?” “That parking spot is saved for the disabled! You should be ashamed of yourself!” Nearly everyone with an invisible illness has been told, “You don’t look disabled to me!” One of my friends replied, “Well, you don’t look stupid to me.” I just bite my lip to try to prevent the tears from forming, broken-hearted that I appear to be deceptive, when I would do anything to give back this parking perk that I use on a rare occasion.
As I circle the parking lot a fourth time on this day I hope for a spot to open up within two-hundred yards of the store, but there is nothing remotely close at this bustling superstore where I need to buy my prescriptions and milk handicap placard for my toddler. My rheumatoid arthritis is flaring badly, causing extra fluid in my knees to dislocate pieces of loose bones. Every step is painful and unpredictable.
Finally I sigh in resignation and pull into the farthest “blue parking spot.” I reach for the placard–the one that has a bold white symbol of a wheelchair–and no, I don’t have a wheelchair–yet. So after fifteen years of having this “privilege” at my disposal I still warily scan the area before reluctantly dangling the placard from the rear view mirror. Is there anyone watching, wondering, or waiting, ready to confront me?
I’ve had scathing notes left on my windshield and many people, empowered by television exposés, have approached me with their opinions. Judgmental expressions and whispers sting just as much. My husband and I adopted a baby and when I would get my child of the car I would avoid eye contact with onlookers because I could hear their whispers of, “She’s not disabled! Or–if she is–she has no right to have a child!”
Nearly 1 in 2 Americans (133 million) live with a chronic illness. It could be diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis, fibromyalgia or even chronic back pain. Many illnesses make walking long distances impossible because of limited lung capacity, physical pain, or unpredictable numbness in the legs. According to statistics provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 96% of these illnesses are invisible. There is no sign of the illness existing, nor the use of an assistive device like a cane or a wheelchair.
I began National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week in 2002, which is held this year Sept 10-16, 2007, after witnessing thousands of people who had frustrations, fears, loneliness, and bitterness, about feeling invalidated. One’s illness, age, diagnosis, or level of disease degeneration, doesn’t change the emotional pain.