Something awful happened to my kids yesterday. Unfortunately, it is not an isolated incident, but it was the first time it happened without Mama Bear there to handle the situation.
Caleb’s 19 year-old sister Sophie thought it would be fun for her to take him out for a haircut, pizza and a quick stop at the grocery store. Caleb’s mental age tests around 5 years old, but there are aspects of him that respond exactly like an 18 year-old young man. Getting a haircut with his sister is infinitely cooler than when Mom takes him, so he left the house with a noticeable spring in his step.
The haircut went well (our local salon is staffed with awesome stylists who always greet him by name). Caleb, who likes to have his hair cut every three weeks to keep a military-style buzz in shape, walked out of the salon full of the confidence a great haircut brings. He and his sister had fun at the pizza parlor. Sophie called to tell me there was one more stop and they’d be home soon.
The next time I saw her, her face was bright red, her eyes were overflowing with tears and she was crying so hard she could barely catch her breath to tell me what had happened. Caleb got out of the car and told me he needed to call my dad, whose strong, assuring voice can calm him in almost every situation.
My daughter is sadly used to having her needs come second to Caleb’s so she sat crying at the kitchen counter while we dialed my dad. She knew I couldn’t talk to her until Caleb was settled back down. My dad said his usual reassuring words to Caleb; Caleb took a deep breath and went to his room to play on his iPad. Then I got the full story.
“We were accosted in the parking lot,” she cried, her voice cracking from raw emotion.
As they were leaving the grocery store, my daughter noticed a man who appeared to be in his late 70s glaring at them from a handicapped parking space near where she had parked. She didn’t think much of it until he got out of the car and walked up to her, asking, “I’m wondering what the handicap is here?”
Sophie is a really tough cookie, the result of being born with an iron constitution and spending more than half her life in hospitals and doctors’ offices with her brother, steeling herself for each new complication or diagnosis. She has a deep empathy for her brother and has come to his defense more times and in more ways than any kid should ever have to do.
Sophie looked this man in the eye and said, “It’s none of your business,” as she helped Caleb, who struggles to get in and out of cars. She got to her seat and was buckling her seatbelt when he banged on her window and said, “Really. I just think it’s funny that you’re parking here.”
Aside from being randomly confronted while using a completely legal handicap placard, Sophie was shaken by this man physically inserting himself into her space. Balancing her reaction with trying to keep Caleb from having a meltdown, she shouted back in extremely colorful language, “You have no idea about what my brother has been through! You have no right to come here and ask me what’s wrong with him! Leave us alone!”
At that, the man walked away, but the damage he inflicted hovered like a cloud over my children as they made their way home.
State laws regarding the granting of handicapped parking permits vary, but they always require a form signed by a doctor. Caleb qualifies under four different criteria outlined by the American Heart Association. He qualifies neurologically due to his temperature regulation problem. He qualifies physically because of bone and joint problems. I’ve heard that autism alone can also qualify one to receive a permit, but with so many other qualifying conditions, we have never pursued a permit based on that.
I have been yelled at in parking lots, questioned just like Sophie was, and even had someone leave a note on my windshield telling me that the only handicap I appeared to have is mental retardation. A good friend of mine, whose daughter has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair has also been accosted by strangers demanding to know what right she has to use those spaces.
All I can conclude is that these ignorant, rude people never stop to think that perhaps that handicapped placard is for a child. They see the driver pop out of the car and assume we are abusing the privilege of a permit. No one wants to ponder that a young kid can face such limitations. And people assume that a mobile person like Caleb who can walk on their own isn’t handicapped, even though the man who went after Sophie was mobile himself.
I am blessed by a vast network of other moms who have kids with special needs. None of us have ever even dreamed of using that permit when our child is not with us. In fact, Caleb’s latest permit (they expire every four years) has his picture on it and I could be ticketed if I used it when he’s not with me. When the spaces are all taken up, some of us have to park way in the back of the parking lot just so we can get the ramp to extend out of our van so our child can get out of the vehicle in their wheelchair. When ridiculous people park in the lined spaces between the handicapped parking spaces, we are out of luck. When obnoxiously selfish people park in these spaces with the car running (“My wife just had to run in the store and will be right back”) we are out of luck.
The saddest part of this story happened after they got home, after Caleb talked to my dad. Sophie went to Caleb’s room and tried to hug him and tell him everything was okay. He put one arm around her and then pushed her away, a completely typical reaction for someone with autism. Sophie started crying again, whimpering, “I just wanted to help you. I just wanted to protect you” while he shut the door.
If you are ever tempted to question the legality of a handicapped permit, please leave it to the police. Not all handicaps are visible. No one deserves to be treated the way my kids were yesterday.