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Posted Dec 08 2009 1:05pm

I saw the following article on the Invisible Illness Awareness Week website over the summer and it really struck a cord with me. The biggest reason is because I used to be extremely passionate about those people who parked in handicapped parking spaces butin my ever-so-holier-than-thou-professional-medical opinionsurely did not need them! HA! What does that Proverb say? 'Pride goes before the fall'? Yeahthat's it.

Since we are right here in the middle of the holiday shopping seasonI thought I would post (with permission) this great article for you all. I hope that it will help EVERYONE to think twice the next time you see someone parking in one of those precious parking spaces who may not 'look' as though they 'need' to. Disabilities come in lots of different shapes and forms. Many are invisible to the untrained AND the trained eye. It is simply impossible to know if someone is truly disabled just by looking at them.

“Do you know the fine for using someone else’s handicapped parking permit is $300?”

“That parking spot is saved for the disabled! You should be ashamed of yourself!”

Nearly everyone with an invisible illness has been told“You don’t look disabled to me!” One of my friends replied“Wellyou don’t look stupid to me.” I just bite my lip to try to prevent the tears from formingbroken-hearted that I appear to be deceptivewhen I would do anything to give back this parking perk that I use on a rare occasion.

As I circle the parking lot a fourth time on this day I hope for a spot to open up within two-hundred yards of the storebut there is nothing remotely close at this bustling superstore where I need to buy my prescriptions and milk for my toddler. My rheumatoid arthritis is flaring badlycausing extra fluid in my knees to dislocate pieces of loose bones. Every step is painful and unpredictable.

Finally I sigh in resignation and pull into the farthest “blue parking spot.” I reach for the placard–the one that has a bold white symbol of a wheelchair–and noI don’t have a wheelchair–yet. So after fifteen years of having this “privilege” at my disposal I still warily scan the area before reluctantly dangling the placard from the rear view mirror. Is there anyone watchingwonderingor waitingready to confront me?

I’ve had scathing notes left on my windshield and many peopleempowered by television exposéshave approached me with their opinions. Judgmental expressions and whispers sting just as much. My husband and I adopted a baby and when I would get my child of the car I would avoid eye contact with onlookers because I could hear their whispers of“She’s not disabled! Or–if she is–she has no right to have a child!”

Nearly 1 in 2 Americans (133 million) live with a chronic illness. It could be diabetescancercystic fibrosisfibromyalgia or even chronic back pain. Many illnesses make walking long distances impossible because of limited lung capacityphysical painor unpredictable numbness in the legs. According to statistics provided by the U.S. Census Bureauabout 96% of these illnesses are invisible. There is no sign of the illness existingnor the use of an assistive device like a cane or a wheelchair.

I began National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week in 2002which is held annually in Septemberafter witnessing thousands of people who had frustrationsfearslonelinessand bitternessabout feeling invalidated. One’s illnessagediagnosisor level of disease degenerationdoesn’t change the emotional pain.

Strangers and loved ones alike doubt the severity of our illness or even the diagnosis. We’ve heard“You look so good! You must be feeling better.” But we don’t feel better. We just bought some fake tan in a bottle and pasted on a smile.

National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week is a time to acknowledge that invisible illness is more prevalent than we’d imagine and everyone–both those who are healthy and ill–can make a difference by encouraging someone with an invisible illnessrather than tearing someone down.

Are those parking spots painted blue because they give so many people the blues? That small area of square footage is a breeding ground for many frustrations as we are forced to defend our illness and character to total strangers. I’d gladly trade in my placard indefinitely for just a week of having my old body back when I could runsit on the flooror even hold a fork without tendons popping out of place.

I anticipate the day when a nationally designated system is formed. Texas law states that blue placards are for those who use assistive devices; red permits are for people with a “condition that impairs mobility.” In other statesred symbolizes six months of disability and blue is permanent. It’s confusing! And for one with invisible illnessthe wheelchair symbol discredits both our physical pain and–in the eyes of others–our reputation. Until thenwe rely on Invisible Illness Week bumper stickers.

The next time you see a healthy looking man loading groceries into his car–parked in the “blue spot”–don’t glare. Stop and offer to help himor just smile nicelygiving him the benefit of the doubt. Seventy percent of suicides have uncontrollable physical pain as a factor. Your smile may save his life. At the leastit will astonish himperhaps providing him with genuine encouragement he hasn’t felt for months.

To find more articles and overall support while living with a chronic illness and/or painplease visit The Invisible Illness Awareness Website or Rest Ministries! Lisa Copen is the director of Rest Ministriesauthor of 'Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend' and founder of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week.

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