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Looks Can Be Deceiving

I am not a big television fan lately, but I am completely hooked on this show called “What Would You Do?” I don’t know if you have watched it, but basically ABC sets up situations with actors and cameras to see what real life people will do when faced with real life uncomfortable situations. They present all different types of moral dilemmas and then we get to see the unsuspecting victims of the scenarios either rise to the occasion of advocating for their fellow man or fail miserably, which they then try to explain their way out of to host John Quinones.

So recently, there was an episode that depicted two female actors, who were maybe in their twenties, parked in a handicapped parking spot. They did not have the required handicap plate/tag and the theory behind it was that neither one of them was disabled, therefore illegally using the spot. Then someone needing that handicap spot pulls in and has nowhere to park. The woman needing the spot asks them to move their car but the girls refuse. Of course ABC plays this all up by having the girls in the car sitting there and acting like they are having a grand old time. The rest of the scenario shows how people passing by either intervene in behalf of the disabled woman needing a spot or just go about their business, pretending they don’t see the situation unfolding. I was surprised to see how many strangers actually did intervene on behalf of the disabled woman.

One of the things that bothered me about this episode though was that as they were setting the scene, it was stated that the women in the car using the handicap space were clearly not disabled because of how they were presenting themselves. Now first, there is the issue that they did not have the required handicap plate/tag to use this parking spot. However if we take this fact out of the equation, how can we then assume that one of these women was not disabled? Were they basing that statement on the fact that they were young? That they had music playing a little loudly? Were they basing it on the fact that they looked “healthy?” I have to admit, I have been guilty in the past of passing judgement in this situation; wondering why a perfectly healthy looking individual would need to park in a handicapped spot.

Several months ago, a friend suggested to me that I apply for a handicap parking tag. I have intermittent episodes of difficulty with breathing and joint pain related to an autoimmune disorder; both of which can impair me to a point where functioning is very difficult at times. I had never thought of applying for a parking tag. The first thought that came to my mind was that having a handicap parking meant I was giving in to my illness. I was still coming to terms with the limitations that my autoimmune disorder put on my life and was not about to give this disease one more victory. I rationalized that I really didn’t need it because most of the time, I could manage getting from my car to my destination just fine. I was also worried what people would think. That was a fact I hated to admit because it’s very rare that I concern myself with people’s perception of me anymore. But there it was. I don’t use a wheelchair, cane, or any other assistive device and I was worried that people would think I was cheating the system by having a handicap parking tag. I mean come on, really?

However through discussion with my friend and my doctor, I came to realize that having a handicap parking tag would actually increase my ability to be more independent. It would make it easier to get to where I needed to go on those really bad days when I would sometimes have to rely on another person to get necessary items at a store. It wasn’t a matter of swallowing my pride, it was a matter of doing what I needed to do to maximize my capabilities. I would be empowering myself.

I did get the parking tag. I have gotten some looks (and even one overheard comment) when parking in a handicap spot on the rare occasion when I have had to use it. It seems like people do look at me and think to themselves “why does she need to park there…she looks healthy enough.” I wish I could make them understand that disability is not just defined by a wheelchair or a cane. Someone with a disability does not have to “look sick”. Disabilities can be physical, mental, or emotional. I think that we can never stop and assume that we know what another person is going through until we have walked a few steps in their shoes so to speak.

I am quite grateful to my friend for suggesting the handicap parking tag idea. It has given me more freedom and flexibility. It has allowed me to more fully enjoy events, such as my cousin’s college graduation, because I was not in as much pain as I would have been if I had to walk the ten minutes from the regular parking lot. Most importantly though, it has reminded me to be more open minded about other people’s struggles. So the next time you are driving around a crowded parking lot, exhausted from work, and just needing to get dinner at the supermarket and you observe a seemingly “health looking” individual emerging from a handicap parking spot, just remember: looks can be deceiving.


  1. Great observations,as usual, Christine. I wonder how differently folks would respond if the access passes did not have a wheelchair on them...perhaps some other generic symbol. I wonder if the placards set up expectations that are not realistic to the diversity of reasons people need to use the tags.

  2. Great entry Chris - keep them coming. Char

  3. Thanks guys. Todd, I never even thought about that but it is an excellent point, especially the part about the expectations....

  4. I also have a handicapped placard & I do not use it every day but when I need it it helps so much. If I had to park at the end of the Walmart parking lot on one of my "bad" days I would never make it into the store. By the time I would have walked that far shopping for anything would be out of the question, even with the motorized cart. I have severe nerve damage and my spnial canal is compressing my spinal cord so severely that I am at high risk of becoming paralyzed. I will be having a fusion of C3 thru C7 done in the next 2 weeks. I do not look sick either. I have gotten some very nasty looks and comments from people for using my handicap placard. Even when people have seen me struggling to get the groceries into the trunk of my car they still do not "get it". I think Todd has a wonderful idea about having another symbol alongside the wheelchair. I feel it does give people the wrong idea and then they feel they can pass judgement on me. I do not use a cane either but I use the handicap spaces to hopefully keep from having to use the cane or wheelchair much earlier than I would if I had to walk the very long distance every time I had to shop at a large department store with a huge parking lot full of cars.Had I not been using these spaces for the last 6 years I would have already been in that wheelchair at age 53.

  5. Yes Rhonda, I very much agree with Todd's idea as well. The wheelchair symbol on the placard is a set up for other people's expectations. I wish you the best of luck on your surgery for the fusion. Let us know how it turns out!


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