[This is an updated version of a post that first appeared in my weekly column on www.multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com]
Do you remember when you first applied for a handicapped license plate?
I put it off for quite a while after I was diagnosed. After all, I could easily walk several city blocks. I could still play tennis. Why did I need to park in a handicapped place? But, there were days when I did. I needed that privilege when it was hot. I needed it when I was extra tired.
The thing is, as many of you know well, I didn’t look like I was dragging. I didn’t look like someone with a handicap. That’s the problem that Aneta Prantera, who has MS and lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, recently faced.
Aneta is 29 years old and was diagnosed about four years ago after she lost the vison in one of her eyes. She’s an example of someone who looks healthy but who needs to use her handicapped parking permit on those tough days that we all have. That’s what she did, not long ago, in the parking lot of a large shopping center. When Anita returned to her car she found an angry note on its windshield. “A handicap permit is meant for handicap Only! You are not handicap. You should be assamed (sic) of yourself for taking a handicap spot simply because you are Lazy. Shame – shame.”
Aneta told the St. Catherine’s Standard: “There’s always a comment. There’s always something under someone’s breath. I shake it off when I hear it, but to come out to a letter on my car like that, I was taken back and in shock that people are that ignorant.” In tears, Aneta called her sister to tell her about what happened.
It all might have ended with that call. Another “shake-off” of another person who just doesn’t get it that some disabilities aren’t obvious. But Aneta’s sister Christina wouldn’t let it go. She posted a photo of the note on Facebook, along with this comment:
“I don’t usually make posts like this one but felt the need to share and hopefully educate this person or anyone else how feels the need to not mind their own business. This afternoon around 3pm my sister Aneta Prantera called Jada Melia and I very upset (crying and shaking to be honest) some extremely ignorant uneducated person decided it was their duty to leave this horrible msg for her on her car in the pen centre parking lot. As many of you know my sister was diagnosed at a very young age with multiple sclerosis. This chronic progressive disease is a daily struggle for her and the last thing she needs to be dealing with is being upset or feeling ashamed because she needs to park close to the entrance. Instead of taking the time to write this hurtful hateful note you need to spend more time educating yourself. Luckly she will get over this and move forward with her fight against this terrible disease that takes over too many young women’s (and peoples lives) but how disgusting of you to belittle someone else when you have no clue what they are struggling with. SHAME SHAME you say…. Shame on you!!!! I don’t know how you sleep at night. Please help me out and share this post so that maybe it can help educate people so that this type of nonsense doesn’t go on anymore.”
Christina’s post was shared more than 2,500 times in less than a week. She told the Standard “I wanted people to understand that this isn’t acceptable. Something that was really bad and negative … turned extremely positive. By the end of the day (Aneta) was so overjoyed by the response that she got.”
Bravo, Christina! But, here’s the thing. The person who wrote the note, as nasty as it was, may have truly believed that Aneta had no handicap. He or she may have a relative with a disability, or may even be disabled…but with no understanding that some disabilities, like MS, can have symptoms that aren’t evident to someone watching.
The question is, how can we educate people about the sometimes invisible symptoms that many of us carry?
Since my column was published last Monday I’ve received a few suggestions. Several people thought that it would help if we used our h/c tags only when it’s really necessary. Frankly, I think that most of us are already doing that. Another person thought that using a cane when walking from your parked car might help make your invisible handicap visible. Well, yes. I sometimes did that before I really needed to use one.
A really great suggestion came from a woman named Deborah. She thought that it would be a good idea to print a pamphlet that could be handed to someone who challenges your use of a handicapped tag. The text inside might explain things that we all know about MS but that the average person doesn’t, including why you can’t always see our symptoms. I suggested that she title it: “Why I May Not Look Disabled.” I think she’s going to propose this to the National MS Society in the U.S. I hope she does and that the Society picks up the ball and runs (faster than most of us can) with it.