When I started college back in 2006, I was in better physical shape. Sure, I had a gait and experienced the occasional trip over my own two feet. But overall, I felt fairly strong and healthy. So when my mom accompanied me to a general checkup and asked my doctor to get me a disabled parking tag for my car, I had to roll my eyes. To my surprise, my doctor did sign off for one, and soon I had a shiny blue, plastic identification to tell every driver around me that I required special accommodations.
For the longest time, I avoided using it. The only time I would put it on the rearview mirror is when every other spot on campus, or the grocery store parking lot, was taken. Even then I felt a pang of guilt, like someone older, frailer, "more" disabled could use that instead of me. I was worried about the stares I might get, being a young person, so I refrained from making good use of the tag. On those rare occasions when I did though, as much as I hated to admit it, my tag did make things easier. My shopping trips seemed to complete faster, and I was less nervous about walking from the parking lot to the front entrance.
A couple years went by and my muscular dystrophy started to slow me down a bit more, and walking became more of a challenge. After a few close calls, where I just barely saved myself from the terrible slow-motion feeling of a hard fall on the knees, I threw up the white flag and used the tag for the purpose it was intended — to make my life easier. I was going to the store after class one day when it started to snow. The small snowflakes weren't enough to make the ground slick enough for my tires to skid just yet, but it was wet enough to be a problem for my sore, tired feet. And if the previous winters in central New York were any indicator, the weather was about to get worse.
I reached into my glove compartment for my blue handicap parking tag, put it on the rearview mirror and pulled into the closest spot up front. I gauged the distance between my door and the front entrance. Totally doable. But I still felt blood rush to my cheeks, for a different reason. Would people stare at me? Would my muscular dystrophy be visible enough to make my tag seem warranted? Would people think I'm just a kid using an older family member's tag to skip ahead?
I got out of the car and looked around before walking inside. Nobody was staring. Nobody really seemed to notice me in the rush of things. I came to the realization that all of these worries in my head were simply a manifestation of my own insecurities and feeling stuck between how I see myself and how I really am, as well as how I think people see me and how they really see me, if they see me at all.
I've found that with time comes a greater sense of self. It's hard enough for a young person to accept herself with all the expectations and standards put in place (most unattainable), but it's even harder for someone with a disability to become comfortable in her own skin. I'm still a work in progress, but I am closer to where I want to be. Accepting the transitions that come with my disability is just one way of getting there.
Although I haven't had any bad experiences with people making comments (my mom, who also has MD, has heard snide remarks), I'm not sure it would bother me so much. Whenever I'm feeling out of place, nervous and especially vulnerable, I try to remind myself that people can oftentimes be ignorant. While some disabilities are clearly visible (wheelchair, cane) some are less noticeable or not noticeable at all. Random people in a parking lot are not doctors. They cannot diagnose you, cannot "grade" your disability and cannot determine what is wrong. Leave that to your doc. And after all, chances are you won't ever see these people again, so don't pay them any mind. Act for yourself, your health and what will make your day a little easier.
We're constantly changing, growing, transitioning. In the past, the handicap tag, to me, carried such a negative stigma. It was a forfeit in my mind, a sign of old age. But now, I see things with better clarity, and I love my tag. I love the security of knowing that, whatever event or store I'm going to, I'll land close parking. It's kind of like free valet. I don't have to plan to arrive an hour ahead of time so I can carefully maneuver slippery rocks/pavement or brave the harsh weather elements. And every one of my friends will want to bum a ride with me!
The tag gives me more freedom, gets me out of the house when I wouldn't otherwise be confident enough to go somewhere, and it eases the stress on my overworked muscles. It's not a deterrent anymore, but rather an incentive to get out and enjoy fresh air, sun and exercise.
Who knew a little piece of blue plastic could do that?