“Handicap, handiCRAP!” we heard someone shout. I cringed, and my muscles tightened as I felt the relaxation of our vacation day slip away.
My husband and I glanced at one another and confirmed our mutual frustration at the situation. My young family of five was on a road trip and just had a much-needed day off from traveling. Someone must have seen two non-disabled adults get into the van and assumed we were misusing the space.
We looked to see if the person who shouted was still around. They weren’t. We knew we were complying with the law, but we weren’t yet accustomed to parking in an accessible spot.
I received the placard several months earlier. When my middle child, Henry, was born, I learned that I caught a virus called cytomegalovirus, or CMV, when I was pregnant, and it affected his growth and development in utero. The prognosis was that he would, most likely, never walk. But I was still in denial. Even after three years of therapy and doctor appointments, the severity of his challenges hadn’t completely sunk in.
I didn’t want to get the placard. I felt like I was giving in and admitting that my son wouldn’t eventually walk. But he had been using a stroller for three full years and had just transitioned to a toddler-sized wheelchair. Navigating a parking lot with Henry is tricky. His core muscle tone is weak, and I have to keep a close eye on him, even when he’s strapped in.
Aside from avoiding the dangers of walking through a lengthy parking lot, accessible spots are strategically placed near a cutout in the curb, a safe path or both. If we parked far from the path, we would need to navigate around cars and traffic to find it.
Some accessible parking spots have almost an entire extra space next to them blocked off with blue lines. I never understood the purpose of those spots until I drove Henry around in a van with a side entry ramp. I crossed my fingers when I got to a parking lot hoping that the one or two spaces for the van would be available. Otherwise I had to wait until one opened up. My son is so young that, when I’m alone with him, I can’t drop him off near the entrance and then go park the van.
Easy access to entrances, curb cutouts and ramps allow our family of five to get out and enjoy the world together.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I was scolded for using the placard. A few months earlier I took the kids shopping alone in the middle of a weekday. I was nervous about being out with them by myself and gratefully pulled into the accessible spot for the first time.
Back then I was still using a double stroller for short trips. It was impossible for me to push both a wheelchair and a stroller (for my younger son) at the same time. But, even in the stroller, Henry often slumped over. The less time we were in a busy parking lot, the better.
Our outing was successful, but as I left the store to head home, I saw a police officer standing next to my car. He asked to see the support that comes in the mail with the placard. Honestly, I was caught off guard and angry. I was already on high alert in the parking lot. The distraction pulled my attention away and made me nervous.
The officer mentioned that someone called the police when they saw me get out of my car with my family. He was following up on the complaint. I reached into my wallet and passed the officer the form (which looks like a car registration) printed with my son’s name. After a quick glance at the card, he asked in a mocking tone, “Is Henry your grandfather?”
I took a breath, walked over to Henry’s carseat, unbuckled him, held him close to me and said, “No! This is Henry! He’s 3 years old!” Henry’s head flopped forward, a clear indication that he lacked control over his body. The officer’s face fell. He apologized and mumbled something about having a 2-year-old at home. I glanced around to see who had called the police but couldn’t identify anyone.
Those days of people passing judgment are long gone. No one bats an eye when I pull into the accessible parking spot in our new modified wheelchair van, deploy the ramp out of the back and wheel my now 9-year-old son out in a large wheelchair. But, after my experiences, I still glance around briefly to see if anyone is questioning our use of the space.
I reached into my wallet and passed the officer the form (which looks like a car registration) printed with my son’s name. After a quick glance at the card, he asked in a mocking tone, 'Is Henry your grandfather?'
On one hand, I appreciate people monitoring the accessible spaces and making sure they are being used appropriately. Yet, I always exercise caution before accusing someone. As a young mother new to parenting a child with a disability, my emotions were raw and fragile. Those moments were disheartening.
A couple of years ago, I was dropping off my younger son at preschool and Henry joined us. The parking lot was hectic. I knew where the only accessible spot was, and when I pulled up, I saw a friend parked there. So I backed out and parked down the block. I pushed Henry awkwardly along a busy main road, my hand tightly gripped on his little brother’s hand, nervously watching the cars to make sure we were safe.
After I dropped my son off at school, I couldn’t help but glance at my friend’s car. She didn’t have a placard. I know that doesn’t mean anything because sometimes, when I’m in a hurry, I overlook hanging our placard on the mirror. She wasn’t parking for long. I knew I had to give my friend the benefit of the doubt. I approached her and casually mentioned that they need to have at least two accessible spots available.
She then admitted, “Yeah, there were no other spots open, so I parked here even though I shouldn’t.”
The truth is, it’s not always easy to identify when someone is appropriately using a spot designated for those with mobility challenges or other needs that qualify. Looking back, I wish I had had more confidence to ignore those who questioned me. We had every right to use the accessible spot and hesitated to take advantage when we really needed it. For the times when I was criticized, I wish people had been kinder in their approach.
And for those who use the spots when they shouldn’t ― please just don’t. I have the placard at my disposal. But I never use it unless my son is with me and we need accessibility ― it’s against the law. Those spots are there for a reason. They help people access the world in ways that might be difficult, or nearly impossible, without them.
Jaclyn Greenberg lives in the Northeast with her family and writes about her experiences parenting a child with disabilities. She is working on a memoir.