It’s a lot of work to take a little kid to the beach. It’s even more work to take a kid with special needs to the beach. Their added physical, sensory, behavioral and emotional challenges make a beach excursion no small feat. In situations like these — as well as grocery runs and routine doctor appointments — handicapped parking spots make the experience a whole lot more manageable for brave, worn-out parents.
Since becoming a special needs mom two years ago, I’ve heard my fair share of handicapped parking war stories. Still, I wasn’t prepared for my own confrontation.
We were vacationing along the beautiful Carolina shores and opted to use our parking privileges to make our trek through the sand. We wanted to make carrying our 2-year-old with hypotonia a little bit easier. He’s little and still looks like a baby, but his uncoordinated body is challenging to hold for any length of time. We didn’t have his gait trainer or any other special equipment that would very obviously communicate why we were allowed to park in that spot (his gait trainer wouldn’t roll in the sand anyway). The handicapped tag was hanging in the front window.
My husband and I stepped out of the vehicle before the kids. Right away, an older lady, who was probably a nearby resident, walked by and said, “Are you handicapped?”
Now to her credit, she was probably policing the spot for her elderly friends who also had handicapped stickers. And our plates were out-of-state. Handicapped signs are displayed differently depending on which state issued the license.
On the flip side, it’s not OK to assume that just because you’re young and appear able-bodied that you have the right to judge someone’s physical limitations. Also, there were three other available spots.
“No, I’m not handicapped. My son has multiple disabilities.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
My writing doesn’t capture the tone of either of us, but I remember her being confrontational, yet sincerely saying “sorry,” and then jumping back to defending her right to ask the question in the first place. She said, “Well, I don’t see a sticker!”
“It’s in the window!” I said, defensively.
The whole interaction left me feeling like I was a little kid in trouble. I felt unworthy of the parking spot. I even started second guessing if we were abusing our handicapped sign. On a deeper level, it was like feeling the effects of diagnosis day all over again.
My sister later told me, “You should have said, ‘Yes, my son is disabled. Would you like to meet him?’” Not in a mean way, but in a sincere way. I wish this were my knee jerk response to people in situations like this. Imagine if I had softly said:
Would you like to meet him? He isn’t walking, but he wants to.
Would you like to meet him? He isn’t eating, but he wants to.
Would you like to meet him? He isn’t talking, but he wants to.
Would you like to meet him? He isn’t exactly easy to take to the beach, but he wants to be here so much. Just watch him giggle as the waves roll over his feet.
The handicapped parking policing experience made my heart feel just a little bit of shame for my son all over again. Like I should try to hide his differences, make do without the exceptions of a parking spot and muscle my way through carrying him even though my back was killing me. And it made me angry, which my husband later pointed out I was taking out on him.
Instead, I could have diffused the anger of our opposing positions. I could have used the opportunity to be proud of my son. I could have given that stranger a chance to meet him up close. I could have better defended his rights as a person. I could have built the bridge between the disabled and the able-bodied.
I wish I could have a do-over. I wish that when she asked me if we were handicapped, I would have said, “Yes. Would you like to meet my son?”
I didn’t that time but next time I will