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Invisible Illnesses & Handicapped Parking

Invisible Illnesses & Handicapped Parking

Ever since the day I was first issued my handicapped parking placard, I have been waiting for someone to give me a hard time about it. I’ve heard horror stories from other patients with invisible illnesses – complete strangers yelling at them, nasty notes left on the dashboard – and I figured it was only a matter of time until something like that happened to me. Recently, someone finally gave me a hard time about it – but not at all in the way I expected.

Deciding to use handicapped parking

I was in the car with my husband, both of my boys, and a friend. We had decided to take the kids swimming at the local rec center, but when we arrived it turned out to be extremely crowded because there was a gymnastics competition going on that day. Since I was dealing with intense fatigue and knee pain that weekend, my husband decided to park in a handicapped spot to make the afternoon a bit easier for me.

To make room for everyone in our car, I was sitting in the back seat, squashed between my sons’ huge, rear-facing car seats. As I awkwardly clambered out from in between their seats, my friend joked “Maybe you ought to look a little more disabled if we’re going to park here!”

I think my friend was nervous

Now he wasn’t saying that I shouldn’t park there. He has seen me struggle with pain and knows that I deserve to catch a break wherever I can. In fact, this friend has encouraged me to make use of handicapped parking and seating many times. He was only making a joke to diffuse his own discomfort with the idea that someone might look over and wonder whether we were using the placard legally. He was probably just as nervous as I have always been that some stranger might try to give us a hard time.

Is there an expectation for handicapped parking?

Because the thing is, there seems to be some sort of expectation that people should be able to tell whether you “deserve” to park in a handicapped spot just by looking at you. Most people probably believe that you should be old, or in a wheelchair, or walking with a cane, or wearing a cast – something to make it visibly obvious that you deserve the placard. When people think about handicapped parking, most people don’t picture a young mom hauling her two young kids (and all their gear) to the pool.

My RA pain and fatigue isn’t visible

And so, because there is no visible sign of the amount of pain and fatigue I am experiencing, people judge. People assume. People decide based on how I look that I don’t “deserve” it.

My disability doesn’t have to be visible

But nowhere in the state of Colorado’s requirements for being issued a handicapped placard does it say I have to look disabled. My doctor and I met all the state’s requirements, so I have every right to make use of handicapped parking whenever I determine it is necessary or even just useful.

I just wish it didn’t make me – and the people around me – feel so uncomfortable.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Anita
    4 years ago

    One of the biggest issues with RA is the variability of symptoms. I can feel pretty good one minute, but miserable the next, so I always use HC parking. I once had a friend, who was driving me and some others for a lunch break, remark that “I’ll leave it for someone who really needs it” when I asked him to park there. The worst part is that he didn’t even realize what a slap in the face that was.

    I’ve had people make a big production over closely scrutinizing my placard to make sure it was valid, or giving me the stink-eye when they see me exit the car. I’ve had people demand to know “what’s wrong with you?” To the latter, I usually just say “My warranty expired.” I like the confused look they get on their faces. Once, an elderly lady glared at me and asked if I always parked in HC spots. I just gave her a big smile and said, “Yup, all the time!” Boy, if looks could kill 🙂

    It’s not as bad these days, since I have props like a cane or my air cast boot for my ankle. It’s still annoying that people don’t realize that those parking spots make our lives so much easier. Being closer to the entrance is a godsend on those bad days or in the winter when trying to navigate icy parking lots. Something that’s also overlooked is the extra width these spots have. It’s not just wheelchairs that benefit from that. Getting in and out of a car is much easier when you can fully open the door.

  • Mariah Z. Leach moderator author
    4 years ago

    Haha – my warranty expired! We have to smile when we can! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Anita.
    ~Mariah~ (Site Moderator)

  • jopilc52
    4 years ago

    Yep, I always feel the same way. I may feel decent when I’m going into the store, but never know what I’ll feel like when I come out. No one knows what it feels like to have to contend with this disability.

  • Mariah Z. Leach moderator author
    4 years ago

    That’s a great point, Joann! You never know how you will feel on the way out! It can certainly be hard for people who haven’t experienced this to understand what we are going through, but please remember that there are many people in this community who understand you! Best to you!
    ~Mariah~ (Site Moderator)

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