Then I realized it did just the opposite.
I received my disability parking placard the week before I started graduate school in 2005. Among the letters from my university about my impending master’s program, there was an envelope containing a plastic blue-and-white placard with an illustration of a person in a wheelchair.
As soon as I saw it, I wanted to put it back inside my mailbox — to pretend it wasn’t mine. But I knew the only way I’d graduate was through the placard, and that was something I’d have to learn to accept.
Only faculty were permitted to park on campus. As a student, I needed an accessible parking placard to do so.
There it hung, loudly shouting my then-undiagnosed disability to the world. Each time I hooked it onto the rearview mirror, it seemed my physical struggles became a little more permanent.
This placard made my new disease — whatever it was — feel more real and more somber with each use.
I was the only one in my small graduate class who was struggling to stand, so I already stood out for reasons beyond my control. Now, I had an accessible parking placard on top of that.
As if my diagnostic struggle wasn’t enough, I was forced to label myself — visually — as if I were shouting my most private secret to those I’d just met.
And without an official diagnosis, I felt as if I were using this parking pass without the proper credentials. I worried others thought so, too.
I never identified with the picture of a person in a wheelchair that was on the placard because it didn’t describe the situation I was in. I wanted to redesign the symbol — to show the world that disability has a wide array of implications.
Passersby expected me to be incapable of walking — to visually showcase the struggles I admitted to when I hung this placard behind my windshield.
Without an official diagnosis, I felt as if I were using this parking pass without the proper credentials. I worried others thought so, too.
I’d exit my car as quickly as possible after hanging the placard and remove it promptly upon entering the car again. In the early stages of this disease, it felt as though I was living someone else’s nightmare and borrowing their disability placard along with it.
Soon, I won’t need this anymore, I’d tell myself. Before my diagnosis, that assumption felt attainable.
But years came and went. I graduated from my master’s program, and although I still didn’t have a diagnosis, my symptoms worsened and my need for the placard continued.
I read stories of those with accessible parking placards finding notes from strangers accusing them of using it invalidly. These many anecdotes convinced me to only use mine when absolutely necessary. It was my way of avoiding the impending judgment.
If I thought I could make it to the door of the mall without parking nearby, I’d pass up the accessible space, only to find my legs were too tired from the extra walking to complete every errand on my list. And when I worried about what others might say, I struggled through the extra steps that resulted from parking farther away.
I let the ignorance of so many influence my self-assurance, which in turn affected the activities I could do with ease. I wasn’t being fair to myself.
The feeling that I was being watched as I left my car was overwhelming — and it didn’t ease over time.
I felt judged by strangers simply through eye contact. I believe some of that judgment was real, but other times, I let myself imagine it. I allowed the disability stigma many of us know all too well to multiply in my brain.
But over time, I’ve learned to not care what others think. Only then could I fully accept my new life — and the placard that came with it.
After I was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2017, having the placard felt more valid, so I allowed myself to use it more often.
Now, I had a name for this disease, and it warranted parking closer to entrances no matter what I looked like.
But even so, I wished I didn’t need one at all. I continued to let myself feel judged as I walked away from my car without a limp. I yearned for a new icon to symbolize what disability meant — for me and for everyone who struggles invisibly.
With my diagnosis, my placard converted from temporary status to permanent. Now, instead of begging a doctor to sign for one, as I had to do before graduate school, I simply renew it online as it nears expiration. While its permanence makes renewal easier, it also made me feel like my disease was etched in stone — forever written into my life.
I let a simple piece of plastic convince me that my disease would hinder my happiness.
I yearned for a new icon to symbolize what disability meant — for me and for everyone who struggles invisibly.
The stigma of owning this placard engulfed me because I felt it symbolized every activity I could no longer participate in. In the coming years, I realized it meant just the opposite.
It took me years to accept a visual marker of disability hanging in my car. But this placard has given me a way to participate in activities I otherwise couldn’t.
It has enabled me to park near the entrance to a museum when other options would have left me blocks away. It has allowed me to park by the pumpkin patch and not a half-mile down the road, enabling me to join my family in a favorite fall activity.
We’ve used it on vacations to the beach and the mountains and to bustling cities and outdoor festivals. With legs that fatigue as I walk or stand, this accessible parking placard cuts down on my steps and preserves my energy for the activity.
It connects me to the world that once felt miles away.
As someone with a chronic illness, I deserve to use any mode of support that allows me to participate in my life. No stigma or judgment from strangers should impede my ability to enjoy a day away from my home.
This disease isn’t who I am. But I am strong because of it. And that strength motivates me to find any way possible to continue seeing the world.
Medically reviewed on November 14, 2023
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