Longevity logo

Why I Refuse to Apply for a Disabled Parking Permit

by Penny White about a year ago in body

I don't consider myself disabled, even though I have an invisible disability.

Why I Refuse to Apply for a Disabled Parking Permit

When I worked the box office of my local movie theater in my youth, the plate glass windows afforded me lovely Autumn views. They also afforded me the opportunity to witness a variety of human behavior.

One particular day, I watched as a maroon-colored van pulled into one of the handicap parking spaces in front of the theater. A caregiver—most likely a parent—opened the side panels. Inside the van, another caregiver pushed a teenage boy in a wheelchair onto a loading ramp. The ramp then lowered to allow the wheelchair to roll on the ground.

While the wheelchair-bound boy and his caregivers approached the box office ticket window, another car—a blue Camaro—pulled into a handicap parking spot across from the van.

I watched—horrified and more than a little miffed—as the driver of the Camaro hopped out of the car and effortlessly walked across the parking lot. He proceeded to reach the ticket window before the boy in the wheelchair without even giving him a passing glance.

I couldn’t say anything to the man. My manager had already given me tongue lashings on two separate occasions for giving people a piece of my mind.

What if someone else in a wheelchair needed that parking space?

There is a valid reason those parking spots are necessary, and not just the obvious reasons.

People with disabilities have traveled a long road to even be acknowledged as citizens of society. Those with mental disabilities were locked away in institutions and treated cruelly. The hearing-impaired were considered dumb. Amputees were once thought to be useless. During World War II, Adolf Hitler murdered thousands of mentally disabled, chronically ill, and disabled people through euthanasia or plain starvation with the intent to eliminate “life unworthy of life.”

These mistreatments don’t even touch the tip of the iceberg when describing past attitudes and mindsets toward the disabled.

Unfortunately, some of those mindsets of disabled people not being “people” still prevail.

And, yet, it is obvious that disabled doesn’t mean incapable.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President twice, despite being disabled from polio. Among his long list of accomplishments—including the Works Progress Program and the establishment of Social Security—he founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. It is known as the March of Dimes today and for which his likeness is featured on the US dime currency.

Ironically, a group named the League for the Physically Handicapped were forced to hold a sit-in for disabled people to get jobs in the Works Progress Program. After a nine day sit-in at the Bureau of Relief in New York City and another two day sit-in at the headquarters of the Works Progress Administration, they were finally able to secure 1,000 jobs for the disabled nationwide.

One of the signatures on the Declaration of Independence was a founding father who suffered “shaking palsy” as cerebral palsy was referred to at the time: Stephen Hopkins. His great grandfather traveled from England and was an original settler in Rhode Island. Stephen was a well-known, successful politician in the 13 colonies. He had to hold his right hand with his left hand as he signed the Declaration, commenting, “My hand may tremble, but my heart does not.”[1]

In more recent times, Stephen Hawking was a prominent disabled person whose mind overcame many of the prejudices shown to disabled people. His intelligence and understanding of science, mathematics, physics, and the cosmos is a brilliant testimony to the abilities of the disabled.

Madeline Stuart, a young Australian woman with Down Syndrome, decided she wanted to be a fashion model. With her sight set on walking the runway, she worked hard to lose the weight to which people with Down Syndrome are prone due to a low metabolism. She is now a much sought-after model, having modeled in many Fashion Weeks, received the Model of the Year Award in 2015, and has been featured in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Forbes, and hundreds of other magazines. Her achievement is an inspiration, not only to others with Down Syndrome, but to anyone with a dream.

It took disabled soldiers returning from World War I for the United States government to realize its responsibility to help the disabled. In 1920, Congress passed a bill funding vocational training and job counseling for the disabled in the general public.

As helpful as this was, it still wasn’t enough. Disabled people continued struggling with barriers of acceptance. Disabled students were denied the opportunity to seek higher education. Those who were wheelchair-bound were unable to enter buildings with steps and doorframes constructed specifically for able-bodied people.

In the 1950s, disabled veterans and people with disabilities began a “Barrier-free” movement, an effort to break down barriers and make buildings accessible for the disabled. Working with the Veterans Administration, the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, the National Easter Seals Society, and others, they convinced the United States government to develop national standards for barrier-free buildings.

The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 required that all buildings designed, constructed, altered, or leased with federal funds be made accessible.

In an ironic twist, as recent as 2004, disabled people sued the state of Tennessee because they had no access to courthouses in that state. One disabled person was arrested because he refused to crawl or allow himself to be carried up the steps. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the disabled and the state of Tennessee could be sued for damages for not providing disabled access to courthouses.

But the most interesting fight for the rights of disabled people came in the seventies.

In 1973, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was an anti-discrimination ordinance that required the needs of students with disabilities be met as adequately as those of able-bodied students.

Four years later, though Section 504 had passed legislation, there were no regulations regarding the statute, leaving individual courts to make decisions regarding the interpretation of the legislation as they saw fit. Which was not always fair and just.

The responsibility of mandating those regulations was up to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). The regulations had to be signed by the Secretary of HEW and published before they could be enforced.

After several back-and-forth exchanges of the drafted regulations between the Office of Civil Rights, HEW, and Congress, the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) was formed to advocate for the regulations to be issued without changes.

Joseph Califano, Secretary of HEW at that time, procrastinated signing the final regulations. The ACCD promised that if he hadn’t signed by April 4, there would be protests of sit-ins.

On April 5, 1977, sit-ins at HEW offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle began. But it was the sit-in in San Francisco, California, that proved to be successful. Possibly because it was where Joseph Califno’s office was located.

It was organized by Judith Heumann, Kitty Cone, and Mary Jane Owen. Though some people left after 28 hours, over 150 people managed to occupy the HEW building for 25 days. It is, to date, the longest sit-in at a federal building in the United States.

Secretary Califano finally signed the final regulations once the tenacity of the disabled was apparent.

But the earliest law that dealt with handicap parking was in 1955 in Delaware. Code 2134 required the designation of certain parking spaces to be for those with handicaps. But after passage of the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act, the federal government got involved and required parking spaces, signage, and curb cuts for disabled individuals. In that same year, the now-familiar handicap symbol—the blue sign with a person sitting in a wheelchair—was introduced. It is known as the International Symbol of Access.

Finally, in 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed, guidelines were created for those parking spaces: The closest spots to a building’s entrance must be handicap-designated and there must be at least one of those parking spaces. The accessible parking spaces should be at least 96 inches wide to accommodate wheelchair loading and unloading. In case you’ve ever wondered, that’s why you will see some handicap parking spaces with diagonal stripes: to create an area large enough to accommodate those wheelchairs.

All of this explains why I got miffed that day at the movie theater. My mindset has always been that those spots should be designated for individuals who cannot walk.

Almost 30 something years later, with a disability of my own, I’ve learned a lot and softened a little. But just a little.

I suffer from Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS), a chronic, painful, debilitating skin condition. Abscesses form in areas not normally seen in public: in armpits, beneath breasts, along buttocks, and in the groin area. The pain from these abscesses often interferes with lifting, sitting, standing, and walking, activities considered normal by able-bodied people. Some people with HS cannot even hug loved ones due to the painful abscesses.

My HS has prevented me from sitting in a chair like a normal human being for four years. As I am the primary—and only—caregiver for my 91-year-old mother with dementia, I must drive to take her to doctor’s appointments, pick up her prescriptions, and do grocery shopping. Driving is not as enjoyable an experience as it used to be. I must “prop” my derriere off the seat, which makes the task precarious and makes me a nervous driver. I drive only when necessary.

People have attempted to encourage me to get a disabled placard to place on my rearview mirror or a disabled license plate.

But, in my mind—warped though it is—I am not handicapped. I can walk. It may be an excruciatingly painful endeavor on some days, but I can walk.

And as long as I can walk, I am not handicapped.

Chronic illnesses such as arthritis, lung disease, heart conditions, or illnesses that make walking difficult and painful or require assistance in any way, be it with cane or wheelchair, may be eligible. People with low-vision or partial vision also qualify. Deaf people do not qualify for a handicapped parking permit unless s/he also suffers from a chronic illness such as the ones listed. But a person—regardless of the reason—must discuss her/his eligibility with her/his doctor before applying.

It is also possible to get a temporary disabled parking permit. For instance, if your leg has been injured or you’ve recently had surgery and you need crutches to assist with walking, you may qualify for a temporary disabled parking permit. Temporary permits run out in six months.

It is also illegal for anyone to use the disability parking permit issued in someone else’s name. Both the disabled person and the person using the permit can be subject to cancellation of the permit, fines, community service, and/or other penalties. A person issued the permit may use it as a passenger, but must be present in the vehicle while the permit is in use.

Those chronic illnesses listed are not visible to the naked eye.

But neither is mine.

I would probably qualify for one of those disability placards. The effects of HS are painful and debilitating. In some cases, mobility is severely limited.

But thanks to my own chronic illness, I’ve learned not to judge so quickly when I see someone jump out of a car with a handicap placard or license plate who doesn’t appear disabled. Because they may have a disability I cannot see, just like I have an invisible, disabling chronic illness of which others are not aware.

Although the man I witnessed at the movie theater hopping out of his car may have had a disability I couldn’t see, there is still no excuse for his rudeness in stepping in line in front of the wheelchair-bound teenager. There is no permit for rudeness.

I still find it unsettling that some people who have those handicap placards and license plates seem to have wonderful mobility, but only because my own mobility tends to be limited. Maybe I am a little jealous that other people can walk without discomfort.

It has nothing to do with disabilities being shameful. Of all the things in this world of which to be ashamed, having a disability is not one of them.

But it may have something to do with a matter of pride.

I am able to walk, no matter how painful. Therefore, I am not deserving of a handicap parking permit. I would rather those parking spaces be used by people who are unable to walk at all, but who insist on remaining independent.

I have an enormous respect for everything disabled people endured to be accepted, productive members of society. And for that reason, I would sooner crawl across boiling hot pavement to get to the grocery store door than take a handicap parking space from someone who actually needs it.

As for those parking spaces reserved for pregnant women... that is an entirely different discussion.

[1]The Society of the Descendents of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. December 11, 2011. DSDI staff. Retrieved: https://www.dsdi1776.com/signers-by-state/stephen-hopkins/

Pen is the author of 30 titles in print and digital. To learn more, visit her websites at Nero’s Fiddle, The HS Journal.

Penny White
Penny White
Read next: Best Running Shoes for Women
Penny White
See all posts by Penny White