Kwantlen Chronicle. Eric J. Welsh. Investigative reporting Health Story: Hidden Disabilities. Vancouver, British Columbia. March 8, 2002.

She has seen it so many times. Tracie McLaren, 25 with Multiple Sclerosis pulls into a disabled parking spot and sees someone glaring at her. In a way she’s lucky. Many people with M.S. require wheelchairs to get around. All she needs is a cane. But without that wheelchair, she is a target for people who think she is stealing disabled parking.

Tracie is one of those people with a “hidden disability”. She has a horrible disease, but to the rest of the world, she appears to be a normal, healthy young woman. That’s not the case. “I get tired quickly in stores,” she argues, “right now I can’t walk more than five minutes without having to sit down.”

Tracie has been told off more times than she can remember. She’s even had a paid parking attendant tell her to move her car. “When someone tells me off,” she admits, “I feel insecure and defensive. And angry.” Tracie has developed ways to avoid ugly situations. “Even if I need it, I won’t park in a disabled space when I’m alone,” she notes, “and sometimes I’ll grab my cane from the back seat, even though I don’t need it, just to prevent conflict.”

Rita Biermann is a spokesperson for the M.S. Society, and she understands how tough it can be. “It forces the person to continuously have to defend his or herself,” she says, “if that person is already “on the edge” it may give that person the feeling they can’t cope anymore.” Biermann says education is the key. The more people know about diseases like M.S., the less likely they are to jump on someone in disabled parking.

Sherri Connell can relate to all of this. Living in Colorado, she also suffers from M.S. and she’s also been told off more times than she can count. That’s what motivated her husband to create “InvisibleDisabilities.com”. With the website, they have become an advocate for people with hidden disabilities. Besides Multiple Sclerosis, Connell points out diseases like Diabetes, Arthritis, Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome as others with no visible outer symptoms. There are many more. 

While it makes her angry, Connell believes most people are trying to do the right thing by defending disabled parking. The idea of protecting those spots for people that really need them is right, but sometimes the approach isn’t. “To those who are able to walk, they see these spaces as a bonus or luxury,” she points out, “but for those who have limitations, it’s just a reminder of what they have lost.”

Connell says people should always assume that the person parking in a disabled spot has a valid reason for doing it. She admits there are cheaters, but for the sake of the legitimately disabled, she wishes they’d just let it go. “Instead of giving a look or saying something negative,” she suggests, “try offering a hand.” And for the person on the receiving end of a nasty glare? “The best thing to do is to expect it and ignore it,” she reasons, “it is horrible to be treated that way, but it may be advisable not to fan the flame.”

Tracie and Sherri both agree, the symbol for disabled parking is misleading. Instead of a person in a wheelchair, Tracie thinks the symbol should be a big “D”. “Even for those who realize it’s not only for those in chairs, the majority of people still feel the person must display a “visible” need for the space,” Connell observes, “I think taking the chair symbol off the signs would help tremendously.” With the help of their website, Connell says they are hoping that will happen.