About an hour ago I ran to CVS to pick up some Gatorade for my husband who is in the midst of a rather violent migraine. He was cursed at a very early age with not just head-splitting pain, but also the inability to keep anything down, including his own saliva, whenever one of these demonic fits hits him.
The store was pretty empty and as I approached the counter, the two employees behind it were finishing up a conversation. I caught the tail end of it. Apparently one of the regular customers had been in earlier in the day and had gotten rather irate with another patron for parking in a handicapped space, even though the person he’d yelled at had had the required parking tag. According to the irate patron, who uses a wheelchair, anyone who can walk and doesn’t have the official license plate doesn’t deserve to park in a designated handicapped spot.
I interjected myself into their conversation when she waved me forward to ring up my purchases.
“I hate when people get judgmental about who deserves a handicap space and who doesn’t,” I said.
She agreed and went on to tell me that the same customer yelled at her a few weeks ago when she stopped by CVS with her daughter. Her daughter, she told me, has brain cancer, and while she can walk, she can only do it in short bursts. She tires very easily and every little bit she doesn’t have to walk really helps her. The cashier was clearly still very upset about the way the customer had acted.
I sympathized with her. My step-mom had a handicap tag on her car for about a decade and we used to get nasty looks and muttered comments all the time. Sometimes the comments weren’t even muttered. I heard more than one person comment on how being fat must be a disability now. Because yes, my step-mom was overweight.
Even my ex, who is a very sensitive and compassionate human being, did not think she was sick enough to have the parking tag. My ex initially thought my step-mom was being lazy and actually using my grandmother’s parking tag (my grandmother had died of cancer earlier in the year).
But neither laziness nor fat were the reasons she had the tag. My step-mom developed pretty crippling arthritis in her late 20’s/early 30’s. In order to combat the pain she was in, she took some pretty strong medications that made the pain easier to deal with, but damaged her lungs and weakened her heart in the process. Before she hit 40, she had both a portable oxygen tank and one at home. The one at home she used like she was supposed to. She was not always great about bringing the portable one though. Even with it, the trip from the parking lot into any store was taxing on her. But as long as she could push a cart at her pace (or later ride in a scooter), she loved going shopping, so we’d park the car in a handicap space, one of us would run and get her a cart or a scooter and then we’d head into the store. She was a bit of a menace with a scooter, but she was out and she was happy.
Many years later, after my dad had one of his kidneys removed during his first bout with cancer, he also got a handicap tag. He was more reluctant to use it because he didn’t want to give in to how much the cancer was taking out of him. But, after the second surgery when he was without his adrenal glands and down to only 40% of one kidney, he too gave in and took the parking space he needed. Although, if you hadn’t known my dad before the cancer hit, you probably would have looked at him and thought he didn’t need that space either. I could see the drastic change in him. He’d once been this sort of colossus, reaching 6’3 and weighing in at about 270. He was a firefighter and a former football player. He was a HUGE guy. While he still had the height, after the cancer he was down to about 175 pounds and his clothes hung off of him. Since he’d refused chemo or radiation though, he still had all of his hair and didn’t have the frailty that so many cancer patients have. If I hadn’t known his prognosis, I’m not sure I would have realized he was really sick either. If I hadn’t seen how hard it was for him to get down on the floor and play with his grand kids, or seen how just walking out to get the mail winded him or seen him fall asleep right in the middle of a conversation because just visiting with family wiped him out, I may not have known he was sick either.
Looking in from the outside, it’s easy to see someone with a handicap tag and think they don’t really need it. Or maybe they don’t need it as much as someone else, but to quote the amazingly wise Atticus Finch, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Before my parents got sick, I have no doubt that I was every bit as judgmental, but I have learned the hard way that sometimes those with the greatest need are the least likely to show it. I’ve also believe that as a society we need to stop trying to fit everyone on some sort of suffering scale. We don’t just have to help, or empathize with or support those who are in the absolute greatest amount of pain or have the most suffering. Just because someone may suffer more does not diminish others who are suffering. I know handicap parking is sometimes limited, but everyone who needs it deserves to have access to it and should not be shamed, and especially not yelled at for using it. Just because you may not be able to immediately see their disability does not mean it is not there.