When we hear the word “disabled,” our minds may immediately picture someone in a wheelchair. But many medical conditions have symptoms that are less obvious, but can still affect a person’s mobility and overall health.
We may glance at someone and get the impression that they’re perfectly fit and strong, but we don’t truly know their medical history. Making judgment calls can sometimes lead to uncomfortable situations.
For example, a former Paralympian athlete recently shared her humiliating experience with an airline. She doesn’t use a wheelchair, but does have cerebral palsy, which compromises her mobility. When she asked for special assistance, the airline staff doubted her claims and told her that she “looked normal”; they wanted her to prove that she was disabled. How, I wonder, does someone prove their disability in a situation like that?
I’ve also read about a woman who returned to her car, which was parked in a disabled parking space, to find an angry note accusing her of selfishly taking the space. The woman was shopping with her daughter, who can only walk short distances because of a muscle-wasting disease and spends most of her time in a wheelchair. The mother had a disabled permit allowing her to use the space, so the person who wrote the note should have left it at that, not taken it upon herself to judge.
On a more personal note, a friend of mine once had knee surgery and though she was no longer on crutches, she was unable to go up flights of stairs without enduring great pain. If a restaurant had its bathrooms on another level, she’d have to use the disabled bathroom. She always feared that someone would call her out — even though she was, for a time, truly physically compromised.
We may all raise our eyebrows when someone without a permit zooms into a disabled space, or refuses to give up their seat to a pregnant woman or elderly or infirm person. But it’s important to bear in mind that not all disabilities look the same. A truly civil society is one in which able-bodied people don’t take advantage of disabled spaces if they don’t need them, nor do they harass others because they look “normal.”