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Don't Judge by Appearances Pamphlet - Accessible Parking with Invisible Disabilities - Invisible Disabilities Association
Woman gets nasty note on her car.

Don’t judge appearances. People with invisible disabilities don’t LOOK like they have a disability.

Don’t judge appearances when you think you see someone abusing privileges or rights reserved for the disabled because you might be making a common mistake based on perception. 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, don’t judge appearances.

Many conditions are not easy to see but they are disabling, so don’t judge appearances.

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. Of course, these issues are not easily observable so this is why we should all be safe and don’t judge appearances.

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.

Easy to remember, don’t judge appearances, when you know many things that may qualify for accessible parking.

Here are just a few invisible reasons a person might have that enable them to qualify either temporarily or long-term for an accessible parking space:

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.

What this accessible parking means to someone who needs it, and a good reminder, don’t judge appearances.

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? Understanding the rules for accessible parking.

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.

Don’t judge appearances, but 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.

Unless you know a someone personally, don’t judge appearances and don’t make assumptions.

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 so don’t judge appearances. 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 pleads, “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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