Invisible-At-First-Glance Disabilities

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The last post got a lot of attention. Many seemed ready to go find minivan lady and make her pay for her comment. Others commiserated on having to fight for recognition for their own invisible (or invisible-at-first-glance) disabilities.  

I was disappointment that Peter was forced to spend time explaining his and Jack’s disabilities to a stranger. The last thing a person with a disability should be forced to do is educate, but unfortunately it often comes with the territory.

Especially when their disabilities are invisible-at-first-glance.

When out and about with Jack I often watch people as they try to figure things out. As if I can see the thought bubble on top of their head, “Why is that mom holding her son’s hand/feeing him/taking him into the bathroom?” “Why is he rocking back and forth?” “Is he licking the wall?”

Sometimes people will stop me and whisper, “My grandson/nephew/daughter/neighbor is autistic”. If I have the energy, I try to explain that although Jack shares some similar behaviors, he in fact has Adrenoleuokodystrophy. “The Lorenzo’s Oil disease – did you see that movie back in the 80s?” If I am tired, I just smile and nod my head knowingly. People seem to love having the connection and who really cares if people think my son is autistic vs effected by ALD.

There have been times that Jack’s invisible-at-first-glance disabilities have lead to awkward moments — like the time we got reprimanded by a woman at a Broadway theater. Jack had been annoying her by grabbing the seat in front of him – her seat. She had asked him several times to please stop. I tried to hold his hands, but Jack is strong and managed to break free for one last grab. She turned to me and loudly whispered, “PLEASE control your son!”

I felt terrible, understanding that it was her night out too and nobody needs to have a stranger touching their chair. At the intermission, I approached her, apologized and explained that my son had challenges and sometimes wasn’t able to control his behavior.

Her eyes widened and then filled with tears as she apologized again and again. That made me cry. There we were, two women in tears, waiting for the intermission to be over so that we could get back to our seats and pretend the whole thing never happened. Jack must have sensed the tense mood in the air and never touched her seat during the second act.

Jack has his share of disabilities and medical complaints, but at first glance, it can be hard to know that he needs a handicap placard. And, Peter has worked tirelessly to overcome and work around his challenges. I guess I can’t fault minivan lady for looking over and seeing two dashing young men get out of their car and think that maybe they hadn’t earned that spot.

All is forgiven, but I do hope that she learned that disabilities aren’t always clearly visible and perhaps she should save her scolding for people who don’t stop for pedestrians or text while driving or turn left into the parking spaces on Maplewood Avenue.

Love, Jess

What is a REAL Disability?

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Jack is blessed with many friends, but he has one bestie. A guy that shows up to our house and Jack doesn’t hesitate to get up and race to greet him at the front door. Even, like today, when Jack had been sitting on the toilet. I apologize to any neighbors who happened to be looking in our windows at the time. Jack can’t help himself when Peter arrives.

But that is not today’s story.

Today’s story is about what happened when Peter and Jack left Speir Drive to head to their favorite spot — The Able Baker. Maplewood Village being a weekend destination for many local folks, the boys needed to do a few loops before finding a free parking spot. It was a handicap space nice and close to their favorite bakery. It’s not just Jack who qualifies for the “luxury” of convenient parking. Peter – Jack’s buddy and Community-Based Instructor/Mentor – also has some challenges. Peter got out of the car and then helped Jack out of the passenger-side, when a women in a minivan stopped her car and loudly ask if they would please, “empty the spot for someone with a real disability. Someone with a wheelchair or walker.”

I don’t know what exact words were exchanged, but Peter was forced to explain that he and Jack were REALLY disabled. That they both qualified to fill the spot and for safety reasons they needed to be close to their destination. I’m sure that Peter said it in a way that was polite and clear. THAT’S who Peter is.

I might not have been polite, but I would have been clear. Judging peoples limitations from the front seat of a minivan is ridiculous and ranking disabilities is crazy. I’m the first person to shame people for needlessly using parking reserved for people with disabilities, but if someone has the placard who am I to need to know WHY they have it. Maybe their disability requires them to use a wheelchair or a walker. Perhaps it’s a heart issue or a back problem OR maybe it’s that maneuvering their companion through a crowded parking lot is dangerous.

So, if you were in Maplewood today and happened to see two handsome young men, enjoying some large cupcakes before getting into a car that was parked in a handicap spot – don’t worry. They earned the spot.

Love, Jess