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Not All Disabilities Are Visible

Think about how many people you see who are clearly disabled during an average week. Statistically, for every person you've seen who looks disabled, you've seen at least 4 more who are disabled but don't look it.
05/03/2016 01:22pm ET | Updated May 4, 2017
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Too often recently, friends or online acquaintances of mine have been accused of faking their disability. I personally am also disabled. I have autoimmune arthritis, fibromyalgia, anemia of chronic inflammation, and asthma. I've been in pain every day since 2001, and over the past 6 years, it has become moderate to severe every day. I experience pain in 54 joints. I am unable to work full-time or go to school full-time at the moment. I take 40 pills a day and 4 inhalers. I'm at the doctor every single week. I've had 5 surgeries. But you would never know any of this by just looking at a picture of me. And I'm not alone, as the vast majority of people who have disabilities have invisible ones. But because the majority of people have the idea that everyone who is disabled looks disabled, too many treat disabled people poorly. They shame them, don't allow them to park in certain places, don't allow them to use a wheelchair, and more. This is so beyond not okay, and it stems from the misconception that everyone who is disabled looks disabled.

What makes someone disabled? The definition of disabled is "incapacitated by illness or injury" or "physically or mentally impaired in a way that substantially limits activity especially in relation to employment or education." As I learned while studying for my degree in secondary education, someone is handicapped if their incapacitation is temporary and disabled if it is permanent. For example, someone who has had ankle surgery is handicapped until they recover. If you'd like to read more about this, Emory University School of Medicine has a great explanation.

Everyone who is disabled looks disabled, right? Nope! As the folks at Invisible Illness Awareness Week figured out based on data from the 2002 US Census Bureau, 96 percent of people who live with an illness live with an invisible one, and 73 percent of people who live with a severe disability do not use devices like a wheelchair. This means that when you look at them, you wouldn't know that they're disabled. Think about how many people you see who are clearly disabled during an average week. Statistically, for every person you've seen who looks disabled, you've seen at least 4 more who are disabled but don't look it.

So how can you tell if someone is disabled? Often, you can't, so if someone says that they are, you need to take them at their word. If someone looks fine but parks in disabled parking -- and have a placard for it -- you can't accuse them of faking it. If someone looks fine but wants or needs a wheelchair, don't question it.

At the same time, we do need to make sure that people who don't have disabled parking don't park in those spots. They also can't park there with their blinkers on while they wait for someone. If you believe that you should be able to park there because of a health issue, talk to your doctor. If your doctor disagrees with you, don't park there. If your doctor agrees with you, you still need to wait until you get your placard in the mail before you park there. Anyone who parks in the disabled parking spots without a placard of plate is breaking the law.

What can you do about that? If you see someone park in the disabled parking spot without a placard, call them out on it or write down their license plate and contact the police. People parking in those spots without a placard are breaking the law pure and simple. The more they get away with it, the more they will do it. Oh, and doing this can prevent someone who needs it from going somewhere and doing something they can't do without the parking. However, before bringing it up with someone, double check to see if they have a placard and you just can't see it. Verbally attacking someone because you don't think they're disabled makes their life already harder than it needs to be.