Don’t Judge by Appearances


Don’t Judge by Appearances – Accessible parking rights & needs for people with invisible disabilities.

They Don’t LOOK Disabled!

Have you ever seen someone get out of a car parked in a space reserved for the disabled, who did not LOOK disabled? Did it make you very uncomfortable or even upset? Did you let them know of your disapproval by giving them a dirty look or yelling something at them?

Well, you are not alone. Many people are very disturbed by the sight of a seemingly mobile person taking the space of someone who is truly in need of it. After all, we want to protect the rights of people for whom these spaces are reserved!

However, in our efforts to help those who deserve these parking spaces, we actually may be hurting someone who has a legal right and a legitimate need to park there. How can this be true, you ask? Isn’t it obvious who does and who does not have a disability? The answer is… no.

The general qualifications for the accessible  parking spaces include those using chairs, walkers, crutches, canes and assistive dogs. Nonetheless, most of us do not realize they also include certain impaired functions of the heart or lungs, as well as conditions which are worsened to a specified impairment by walking a certain distance.

As we can see, people with a variety of  disabilities may qualify to park in these spots.  Moreover, not all impairments are readily evident to the onlooker. Because of this, we refer to conditions which cause debilitating symptoms that are not so apparent from the outside, as “invisible disabilities.”

There are millions of people who are forced to contend with serious illnesses, injuries and  circumstances, which have left them with mountains to climb every time they take a step. Most people do not realize a person can have hindrances on the inside, that may not visible on the outside. Their  restrictions may not be conspicuous at a glance, but their pain, limitations and inability to function normally can be debilitating.

Allan Appel, a disability columnist added, “Think of a severe flu condition. All of your energy is sapped, and every muscle aches. You would just as soon jump off a bridge as get out of bed. Of course, most flu symptoms subside and disappear in a matter of days.”

What may seem easy to you, may seem like a 14,000 foot hurdle to them. Many even collapse in stores, become very dizzy and weak or even black-out. Being able to park close to the entrance of a building when they need to, allows them to run an errand they otherwise would not have been able to conquer.

Here are just a few invisible reasons a person may be able to park in the accessible spaces:

Back Injury, Brain Injury, Chronic Illness, Chronic Pain, Heart Condition, Muscular Disorders, Neurological Disorders, Seizure Disorders, Spinal Disorders, Bone Disorders, Chronic Injuries, Organ Transplant, Oxygen Impairment, Difficult Pregnancy, Prosthetic, Surgery and several others.

They Really Need It?

 For many, the shortened distance from the parking lot allows them to: walk into a building to use an electric cart or wheelchair; avoid dangerous exposure to heat, cold and exhaust fumes; use their energy for shopping; get back to their car when they have used up all of their energy inside.

As you can imagine, it is very uncomfortable when people stare, because they think you do not look as if  you need to park in a reserved parking space. As a  result, many people with these circumstances are left feeling afraid to use the very spaces that were intended to help them.

Honorably, most with invisible disabilities genuinely want to leave these spaces open for others if possible. Many will: look for another close spot if there are not several spaces open; not park in a van accessible space if there is another option; just have someone drop them at the door; not park in an accessible space at all on a “better” or “good” day.

Unfortunately, to many people who are healthy and able to walk, they see these spaces as a bonus or luxury! On the contrary, those who are sick and in pain dread having to use these spots. In fact, most people with debilitating illnesses and injuries would jump at the chance to trade their plates and placards in for the ability to walk from the farthest parking space! In actuality, these spaces do not make a person’s life easy, they make it possible.

Who SHOULD Park There?

First of all, nobody is allowed to park in the access isles, which are placed next to the accessible spaces. These are marked with stripes and are designed to help those maneuver themselves and their assistive devices out of the car door. When someone fills up these isles, a person could get blocked in or out of their vehicle.

Second, there are spots strictly set aside for those using wheelchairs or motor scooters. Not every parking lot has them, but for those that do, they are clearly marked, “Van Accessible.” These spaces are 96″ wide, with a stripped 96″ space to the side, allowing the person to maneuver their chair or scooter out with a lift or ramp. It is not illegal for someone  without a chair to park in a van accessible space, but it should be left open for those with the specific need, if there are other spaces available.

On the other hand, the rest of the reserved spaces are properly referred to as “accessible parking spaces.” They are marked with a sign that often has a logo of a wheelchair. Because of the wheelchair symbol, many people deduce that the spaces are only for those using chairs. Nevertheless, the current logo  actually signifies there is “accessibility” to ramps and shortened distances to accessible entrances. It is also used as the universal and international symbol for “disability,” even though it is not restricted to those using a chair.

Someday, maybe they will change the signs, so that there is no longer such confusion. Appel noted, “Perhaps only visible physical disability is implied by such a symbol, thereby fostering a certain prejudice toward those with invisible disabilities. A possible solution being bandied about is to change the sign to a simple blue field with a bold white capital letter ‘D.”

At any rate, the purpose of the accessible spaces is to assist those with many types of disabilities and disabling conditions. For those with various types of limitations, the spots help to make it possible for the visitor to shop and run errands.

How do you know who can park in an accessible space and who cannot? Look for a temporary or  permanent placard in the front window or a disabled license plate. These items are received through an application form in which a patient’s doctor must fill out for them, through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Each state’s DMV has specific guidelines and  requirements the person must meet in order to receive a placard or license plate. Most states take into consideration the impairments due to certain conditions, as well as the implications stemming from aggravations of these conditions. Therefore, if a person is issued a license and is displaying it, then they have the legal, medical right to park there.

If a person is not displaying a placard or license and you suspect they are illegally parked, you can notify a security guard or the store manager to page the owner by license plate number and vehicle description. Or, you can choose to call the sheriff’s department of that county if it is not on private    property. However, the vehicle must be illegally parked when the officer arrives. Do not confront the person and do not call 9-1-1!

Don’t Judge By Appearances!

What about those people who borrow a relative’s placard or steal one? Well, this is definitely disrespectful and dishonest, as well as being illegal. However, we cannot be sure a person is misusing a placard, unless we know the person. Therefore, it is in the best interest of those of who live with invisible disabilities to just smile and assume they have a right to be there.

These reserved spaces are designed to help those in need of them for a number of reasons. Whether the disability is visible or invisible to others, without these spaces, seemingly simple tasks in life could be increasingly painful, overwhelming, often impossible or even life threatening for millions of  people.

It is honorable when people care if these spots are being abused by those who do not need them. Yet, we must remember, as shown in this article, we cannot be the judge of who deserves to park in the accessible spaces and who does not, just by looking at them.

Appel plead, “Compassion means not sneering at or verbally harassing someone who does not appear to be disabled but occupies a handicapped parking space. The operative word here is ‘appear.'”

Therefore, if a person is displaying a license to park in an accessible parking space, try offering a hand, instead of a visual judgment. After all…the people you are graciously intending to defend, may be standing right in front of you!

ARTICLE RESOURCES: Appel, Allan. April 23, 2003. “Invisible disabilities are still disabilities.” Stuart News Company- The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News.


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  1. Sally says

    The purpose of handicap parking is to provide access to goods and services to those who otherwise could not access them. They are not meant to be used for convenience, ease, or time saving.

    Simply having any disability, visible or not, does not automatically qualify one for a handicap permit. Your ability to walk must be severely limited. So much so that you cannot walk 200 feet. 200 feet is not far, the average speed of a normal human gait is about 3 miles per hour or 264 feet per minute. if you have a normal gait with no visible limitations you can walk 200 feet in 45 seconds. So if you can walk for 45 seconds with a normal gait, please do not park in handicap parking.

    Too many people today with placards do not meet this severely limited qualification. They may very well have limited walking abilities, but are not severely limited. This is one of the main reason the number of issued handicap parking permits has skyrocketed. Add on top of that the fraudulent use of placards (friends and family using placards being #1) and those who blatantly park in handicap parking without a placard. No wonder its very difficult these days for those who truly cannot walk 200 feet to find open handicap parking spaces. And even harder for those requiring van accessible spaces.

    If you have the means, even if it takes extra time and effort, please park in non-handicap spaces. Leaving the handicap spaces open to those who otherwise, even with extra time and effort, can not access goods and services without parking in them.

    • AngieR says

      The exact requirements vary from state to state, but you’re still very much oversimplifying the requirements for a handicap placard. Normal gait is irrelevant. Visible limitations are irrelevant. And nothing says “cannot walk 200 feet.”

      I find it incredibly offensive that you chose to lecture people that don’t fit YOUR ideas of what constitutes an acceptable level of disability. It’s doubly insulting that you chose to deliver that lecture on an article about setting aside pre-conceived notions of disability.

      • Sally says

        AngieR, I invite you to review your states and other state qualifications. Almost all states now have the “cannot walk 200 feet” qualification. This is do to reciprocity agreements states have so they can honor placards/plates from other states. All the states try to closely follow the federal “Uniform System For Parking For Persons With Disabilities” guidelines. These guidelines also include the “cannot walk 200 feet” qualification.

        The “cannot walk 200 feet” is actually the least restrictive qualification due to it not requiring any specific illness/disease or assistive device. You will also notice that of all the qualifications the “cannot walk 200 feet” one is the only one that defines limited or severely limited walking. The other qualifications implicitly inherit “cannot walk 200 feet” as a definition for limited walking.

        So for example, if you have an an arthritic condition you may qualify under “Are severely limited in their ability to walk due to an arthritic, neurological, or orthopedic condition.”. To qualify with arthritis your ability to walk needs to be “severely limited”, which is implicitly defined as “cannot walk 200 feet” by the previous qualification.

        It’s also interesting to note that some states, like Illinois, are now explicitly tying the “cannot walk 200 feet” qualification with the other qualifications. Meaning that you “must” have one of the other listed conditions and “cannot walk 200 feet”. This is even more restrictive because just not being able to walk 200 feet no longer qualifies under Illinois law.

        My intention is not to lecture or fit people into my idea of what constitutes an acceptable level of disability. My intention is to educate people as to what the least restrictive qualification is by law in most states and at the federal level. And to educate them as to just how limiting “cannot walk 200 feet” is. With the hope that knowing these qualifications will aid those that qualify by ensuring disabled spaces are available when they need them.

        • Kris says

          The problem is I have good days and bad days. Sometimes I can walk into the store do my shopping just fine. Other days I have to hang on the shopping cart just to stay standing. I don’t know how bad I will be till I’ve walked into the store. Even on a bad day many think I look fine cause I walked normally from the handicapped spot to get a cart. They can’t tell that the cart is keeping me from falling by the time I get there. I have had days I think are good and by the time I’ve done a small amount of shopping I have collapsed and have trouble getting back to my car in the H/C space. I can no longer go anywhere safely by myself.

          I have friends in a wheelchair who can travel from the far end of the parking and all over the store for hours just fine. However, they look like they need (and use) the H/C space. Technically I NEED the spot more than the person that is in an electric chair or who has the strength to use their wheelchair for miles and miles, etc.

          Just because I can walk more than 200 ft right now, I might not be able to walk the 200 ft back to my car. Tomorrow who knows, I might have problems walking the 100 ft to the store.

          • George says

            Your forgetting about the loading area (access aisle) that H/C spaces provide. Without that loading area your friends in wheelchairs wouldn’t even be able to get out of their car. Where as you can get out of your car, and if needed could use a walker. And if you truly cannot determine when you will have an issue you should always be using a mobility aid like a walker.

            In short, WC users ALWAYS need the extra space to enter/exit their vehicle. You SOMETIMES need it. Your idea of who is in more need is flawed.

          • Sally says

            Kris, I understand your dilemma. Your situation is very common and stems from a single issue, distance. Distance is the most volatile and unreliable aspect of disabled parking. The distance between stores and handicap parking is volatile, the distance required to access goods and services inside of stores is volatile, and as you mentioned, the distance an individual can safely navigate changes day to day, hour to hour. There is no one distance that works everywhere for everyone all the time.

            The reliable aspects of handicap parking spaces are the access aisle, the slope/grade, the surface material, the barrier free access routes to/from, the store door handles, the pound force required to open the door, etc. The ADA controls and demands that these reliable aspects always be part of handicap parking spaces. Given that these features are always present, distance issues can easily be overcome.

            Distance issues are easily overcome by simply choosing an appropriate mobility device. Things like canes, crutches, walkers, scooters, wheelchairs, etc. As you mentioned, for your friends in wheelchairs distance is not an issue. However, if the reliable ADA aspects mentioned above were not there, your friends in wheelchairs would still be unable to access goods and services.

            For you it sounds like a shopping cart (e.g. walker) would be your solution to solving distance issues.

          • Kevin says

            This invisible disabilty idea is BS! If you can walk around Walmart for an hour you can park in a regular parking spot. These people who claim all these “invisible” ailments maybe should not be driving at all. Common sense is that those Handicap Spots were designed for people in wheelchairs. Maybe we should make some other signs for hyperchondriacs and people who eat theirselves to death but just need that up close spot. Your invisible disabilty is just that, invisible.

    • says

      I’ve worked in the parking industry for many years. At shopping malls, it is a common site to see people with expensive vehicles, park at area’s designed for handicapped individuals. I work in Los Angeles and it’s common to see the handicap spaces filled with luxury vehicles and drivers who have no problem walking throughout a mall and lugging their purchases to the vehicle. The majority of people who park at these locations are using a family member’s place card or they’ve paid under the table for a place card that they don’t need. In one instance, the driver of a vehicle that was parked at a handicap location had left the trunk of his vehicle open by mistake as he shopped at the Beverly Center. I waited, along with security for the driver to return because it was standard procedure to not tamper with a trunk lid that was opened for fear of possible detonation of a device. The driver came out form the escalator and paid for his ticket. He appeared to be a very health young male in his mid 20’s. He had on an exercise outfit with running shoes. He noticed security beside his vehicle with his trunk open. He hurried quickly over to his vehicle and asked what was wrong. I informed the man that he had apparently left his trunk open so we were waiting for him to return so that we could assure that professional thieves that frequent parking lots would not steal any valuables from his vehicle. He was very appreciative as he checked his work out bag and found nothing missing. He jumped into his Mercedes and drove off. Able bodied people should not be able to have a handicap placard because it hinders the people who do need to park close to an elevator or escalator. The corruption is wide spread and beyond the scope of the article. If I had the time I would do surveillance and provide further evidence that the people who give out the Handicap placards are seeking to fill their wallets with cash instead of providing the placards for those who truly need it. My mom is 70 years old and she is in poor health but she doesn’t have a placard. People half or a third her age have a Handicap placard but they are in excellent physical shape. It’s very disappointing the world that we live in is focused on greed and helping themselves instead of others.

      • Maria says

        Two things:

        1.) What does it matter if they have a luxurious vehicle? Are you inferring that people with disabilities don’t have the capacity to afford such things?

        2.) In regards with your closing statement, how disabled a person is isnt in regards to their age. Yes there might be people who are three times younger than your mom, but they might be in worsened shape. Just because your mom doesnt have a placard doesnt mean you have the right to deny younger people it. My nephew is six years old and by simply looking at him you would not think anything is wrong with him. He walks a little funny, and a lot slower but he can still walk. My sister doesnt make it a priority to park in accessible parking spaces, but on days when my nephew has been walking a lot she tries to. Also, on days when the sun is very hot, she tries to snatch one of these spots because since my nephew walks a lot slower, he’ll be in the sun too long. You might not think this is a big deal but it is. He is putting so much effort into walking into the store, he is already getting tired and he doesnt need the scorching hot sun on his back. By the time we get inside, my nephew is tired out and cant take a step more. He needs to sit down and drink water for at least 5 minutes.

        No one should judge another person. We cant say who is capable of it. We dont know what or how that person is feeling.

    • says

      I appreciate the title of this article, “Don’t Judge by Appearances.” Some years ago I was yelled at length by a very angry person for parking in an accessible space, and walking toward a building with no apparent handicap. Though there was a placard in my vehicle, the person was furiously, righteously angry. What they didn’t know – and couldn’t tell by looking at me – is that my daughter is disabled. I was picking her up and needed the extra space to get her/her chair into my vehicle.
      Don’t judge by appearances, indeed.

      • Sally says

        Hi Kelly,

        Your situation is certainly a valid and legal reason to use a disabled parking space. I would however encourage you in this particular situation to leave the handicap space open and either pick your daughter up at the door or if weather permits and spaces are plentiful farther back in the lot use that space to load your daughter. The only reason to avoid using the disabled space yourself would be to ensure the space is open for someone else to use. Especially for someone who is alone and doesn’t have the same options.

        • says

          Sally, you need to grow up and get a grip on reality. You contradicted yourself over the situation of the mother picking up her daughter by saying she has a valid reason for parking in a handicap space and then you go on blathering about how she should either pick her daughter up at the door or park far away and load her there. It’s people like you, the self-righteous judgmental morons who make the world a very bad place to be. Try this one on: mind your own damned business and find something more useful to do with your time instead of harassing people over something they are LEGITIMATELY ENTITLED TO DO. Stop trying to be a miss-know-it-all and learn that you are absolutely 100% wrong in everything you are saying here.

  2. says

    I am disabled with a brain Injury and disrespect people those who give placards oto their friends.
    However, there are so many disabilities which are not recognized at first glance. Brain Injuries
    are often called the invisible disorder. I may look “normal” on the surface and speak well, with
    a high level of Education, but the reality is my short term memory can be a struggle.
    Often I forget.

    Regardless of the wealth of the disabled or poverty, most people don’t realize that you can
    work on a disability, with limited earnings. Being determined disabiled can be an arduous process
    but again, having money does not make you less eligible for the placard.

    Here again, there is abuse of the system but the placard holder should NEVER allow a non disabled
    person borrow itIt is illegal.

  3. Mia B. says

    People never cease to amaze me with their ignorance. Some of you people actually came to a page that is dedicated to stopping the judgment of invisible disabilities and you are doing exactly that. Who died and made you God?!?!
    Let me try and paint a brief glimpse of someone living with an invisible disability. I get out of my car and what you see is a younger woman in her late 20’s. She appears to to be in “perfect” physical condition, and look she just got a young child out of the backseat, she’s a mom too. She can not possibly need that handicapped spot. Now let me share with you what is INVISIBLE for you to see by looking at me.
    You DON’T see my two heart conditions.
    You DON’T see my heart monitor.
    You DON’T see that I have had 4 surgeries in the last 6 months alone and I’ve had 2 heart surgeries in less than 2 years.
    You DON’T see that I have have MS.
    You DON’T see the numbness and weakness I have in my arms, legs and face.
    You DON’T see me struggling through the grocery store, holding myself up on the cart so my son has dinner.
    You DON’T notice that i have no perishable items in my cart, in case I can’t get those few groceries in the house right when I get home.
    You DON’T see the cane I keep in my car for when I get too weak.
    You DON’T see me sitting in my car resting so I can drive home, because that 15 minutes in the store wore me out.
    You probably HAVEN’T seen me on the floor by the checkout surrounded by paramedics because I pushed myself that extra hundred feet, because I foolishly was thinking, hoping, praying today would be one of the days my body could handle it.
    You DON’T see the anger and frustration I feel towards my body, because it won’t allow me to do what most would see as a simple task.
    And you HAVE NEVER seen the fear in my toddlers eyes as he watches his Mommy fall to the ground because like an idiot she pushed herself just too far that day.

    For the person who said it is for people with walkers or in wheelchairs. For me there will come a day and probably much sooner then it should, that I will have to use a cane 24/7 and that i will be in a wheelchair all the time. So forgive me if I don’t want to use one before or when I don’t absolutely have to Just to satisfy your narrow minded idea of what disabled should look like.

    Now for the comment “if they claim all these invisible ailments maybe they shouldn’t be driving.” Let me tell you, not that it is ANY of your business, there are definitely days and periods when I can’t and do not drive because I can’t even take a simple shower without needing to rest, because it feels like I just ran a marathon. I do however have good days when i am just fine to drive and I keep them good by not pushing myself too far. 90% of the time I don’t go anywhere without my husband or another family member to help me and maybe 3% of the time will I even dare to go anywhere with my child by myself out of pure fear, and those are only on my really good days. I Can’t always have someone with me and I refuse to allow these illnesses to hold me back and put my life on hold anymore then they already do.
    So you may not see my disability and my need to park in that spot, but trust me they are there; and I, my family and friends see and deal with it everyday.

    Just something to think about the next time you are going to open your ignorant mouth and say something judgemental to or about someone with an invisible disability.

    Have a Blessed Day!

    • George says

      Of course we don’t see those things, there invisible after all. But what we do see is YOU, WALKING, with NO limitation. If your walking with no limitation you can’t reasonable expect anyone to not think your gaming the system. Wrong or right, that’s just the way it is.

      No level of education in the world will ever change that. Because if it did, everyone would have to assume everyone has a hidden disability and EVERYONE should be parking in disabled parking. That will NEVER happen.

      • says

        Doctors don’t just give out handicap parking placards/plates all willy nilly, we have them for a reason.

        Just because we look fine on the outside doesn’t mean we aren’t broken and in need of those spaces just as much as those with visible disabilities. There are days I can walk into a store no problem, then 5 mins into my trip my ability to stand or even stay conscious are compromised. I have no way of knowing when things like that will happen. I can be fine one min then down the next. I also have very limited vision which makes walking long distances dangerous for me.

        For people to sit and judge us simply because to you we “look fine” is rude, and disrespectful.

        • jim says

          While I agree with so much of what you are saying, to say that “doctors don’t just give out handicap parking placards/plates all willy nilly” is like saying that doctors don’t prescribe pain killers all willy nilly. The good doctors don’t, but there are many doctors who are not “good”. You can’t possibly believe that there aren’t tons of unnecessary placards out there. As a person in need of one of these, I would think you would be outraged at that thought.

  4. jim says

    I am one of those people who wants to yell and scream at the people who appear to not need these spaces. I have always refrained because I am completely aware that some people may need them even though it appears that they don’t. I get it. When this happens I say a little prayer giving thanks that I don’t have a need for one of these spaces.

    However, I’m not stupid. The majority of the people I see using these spots appear to not need them. How is that possible? Why don’t you EVER see a car with a handicap placard ticketed. So much of the animosity that exists between people who do the right thing and people who appear to not need the space would go away if some measure was taken to police this system.

    I have seen both sides of this. I have known people who really did need a placard, and I have been shocked and appalled by people who I have known personally who have abused the system.

    To those of you commenting here who clearly are in need of a handicap parking space and have been abused by someone who didn’t understand your own particular situation, I would like to say. I am sorry if I have ever judged you. For me it comes caring about people who are just like you.

    I have recently taken to the internet to try to educate myself a little more on this system. I want to learn how to play a more positive role in this debate. I think it is time that the handicap placard system is updated in some way to weed out the people who are a disgrace to all of us.

  5. Edie says

    I am a handicapped individual for the past 25 years…I have a musculoskeletal disorder that was diagnosed later in my life time. The pain is debilitating and hard to walk but I push myself. I have my handicapped plates on my car and hanger. I have had more than several confrontations with people who are ignorant to the fact a disability is invisible and who are they to judge me on how I feel? They do not know how I feel on the inside or what is going on within my body. Just because I am not the stereotype of an individual in a wheel chair I am not considered handicapped? The doctor issued the permit to me and just because I can walk to get out of the car I am looked down upon. I have worked at the same job for 30 years now–I hold my own and don’t expect the government to pay me. Many people in my home town abuse this privilege I see it on a day to day basis. All I know is that I am glad there I a thing called “INVISABLE DISABILITIES” it is exactly what I have been dealing with for years now.

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