To the elderly lady in the car park,
Yes, I saw you making a point of trying to make eye contact with me and yes, I saw you shake your head and tut in a very disapproving manner at me. I heard you make rude comments about me to what I can only assume was your husband and I even heard him try and tell you to be quiet and not make a scene. The reason for your anger was quite simple, I was using my blue badge to park in a disabled space in the supermarket and it happened to be on a very busy and very wet day.
Situations like these usually infuriate me; I will make a point of flinging my badge into the windscreen, abruptly getting out of the car and making a point of keeping my head up and not looking back. But on this day, for the first time ever, I didn’t do that. I stopped for a split second to think. That used to be me. I used to be that person. I think deep down many of us have. We’ve assumed that person must be fine because she walked around the shop or because last week he was at a football game etc. Until you have come across an invisible disability I don’t think you will ever really understand what it is like.
For me, I live in a small town so there is really only one supermarket for us to go
to locally. This also means you get to recognize faces. I will never forget the manager of the shop’s face when I popped into the shop in the morning to grab something quickly then went back in the evening and was in my wheelchair. At first I couldn’t understand why he was staring at me, then when I realized that actually seeing someone walking with only a slight limp and then six hours later seeing them in a wheelchair must be pretty strange, I just smiled and laughed it off. Because again, invisible illness is something that is very hard to understand.
I haven’t always had this approach to situations with “outsiders” before. By this I mean people who aren’t familiar with my life and my health problems. I could never understand why people looked at me odd for sitting at an odd angle, or having to sit on the floor in the middle of an aisle. I didn’t see why people felt it OK to stare when I went into a disabled toilet or when I took my shoes off in the street because they were just too heavy for my feet. It took me a long time to realize that to passersby, this was not the “norm.” It was for me, yes, but not to most of society. I began to realize it was not their fault.
I know not everybody reading this will agree. I know some people will think that you should never judge anyone and I am not saying I disagree, what I am saying is that we are all human; we judge others, we make assumptions and we get things wrong all the time.
I’m not saying I will always have this attitude with other people. I also have a
much smaller tolerance for people who are just plain rude as opposed to genuinely curious. It’s OK to be curious and ask questions – that is how we learn and spread awareness – but there is no need at all to be rude or aggressive.
I suppose you could say the lady in the car park was rude. She probably was. But
there was something about her that made me see how I could sometimes be. So instead of being aggressive back, I simply smiled at her as I tried to catch my balance as I stood. I also made a point of smiling at her husband who looked very apologetic so he knew it was fine. As I limped my way as best I could, slightly dragging my one leg that was suffering from the horrible damp weather, I could feel her staring at me, half in shock that I wasn’t the fit and healthy young adult she had seen sitting in the car and the other half almost felt like a guilty thing. Like she felt bad she had assumed I was just using the space to not get wet. I tried my best not to look back; I didn’t want her to be embarrassed.
Part of me wishes I’d turned back and said something that day. If I had it would’ve been something simple but not rude – that would’ve made the situation much worse. It would’ve been along the lines of: Not all disabilities are visible, and if I could, I’d be parked right at the back and enjoying the walk to the front, like anyone my age should. But this is my life now and I will do everything within my power to make my life as easy as I physically can.