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On Being Truly Disabled, Leveling the Playing Field and Handicapped Parking

By Roger A. Russell, Ph.D.

              In spring of 2003, Blair Hornstine, then a high school senior, sued Moorestown High School in New Jersey, because she felt she should be the sole valedictorian in her upcoming graduation.  The school had decided that two other students who had, in fact, achieved slightly lower GPAs should join her in that honor, because her GPA had benefited by accommodations made for her disability (an unstated and unverified but purported medical disorder leading to a chronic fatigue sort of condition).  As a result, she hadn’t been required to take physical education classes, and whenever she did less well in courses taken on campus, she was permitted to withdraw and take the classes at home with a special tutor who then graded her work.

                I was reminded that there are those who wish they had the some of the accommodations that are provided for those of us who are disabled, accommodations provided in an honest effort to level the playing field for those at a disadvantage.  I recalled a coworker at the university where I recently taught who watched me in my wheelchair, as I got out of my van in a handicapped parking space and then said, “I wish I could have a reserved parking space like that for me.”  He was grinning, and I could tell he meant it as a joke, but I thought there was some truth behind his statement, if not for him, for others.  And I thought but didn’t say, “Well, a little surgery to remove a leg, or cut your spinal chord would provide you with a disability that would qualify you to park here.”  I doubted he would be willing to pay such a price.

             And then I remembered that there are many who are not truly disabled but who manage, one way or another, to obtain the accommodations designed to level the playing field for those who truly need to have it leveled.  They seek the accommodations without paying the price.

            When it comes to handicapped parking, a prime example, there are those who do not qualify for parking placards for the disabled but who obtain and use them just the same.  There are those who steal disabled parking placards (mine was once stolen), those who take and use placards from family members who truly qualify for them but without that person in the vehicle, and those who fraudulently obtain placards (football players at a major Southern California university did this), or the special license plates.  Some years ago, my personal physician told me  that he found it difficult to turn down patients who wanted him to verify they were qualified for handicapped parking but who at best had marginal need for such parking.

            For a person who is truly Disabled, the playing field is not level, and efforts to level it are highly desirable and beneficial.  But when a person who is not truly disabled is provided with those accommodations, the playing field doesn’t become level; no, it becomes very slanted in their favor.  At that same university where I taught, there were students who eagerly sought to qualify as "learning disabled" in order to receive the accommodations such students received, such as more time on exams.  It was my task to inform them of the criteria for a learning disability (at which point many decided to drop the matter) and  to test those who persisted to see if they truly qualified (some, but not many, did).

            The key here is identifying who is truly Disabled.  One obvious criterion is the presence of a verifiable visible, or non-visible disability  that is significant enough to put the disabled person at a disadvantage.  With regard to handicapped parking, it is a condition that results in a mobility impairment, one that may or may not require medical equipment like crutches, or a wheelchair, but one that still benefits from the location and size of handicapped parking spaces.  But sometimes it is difficult to assess and verify such disability, especially when it concerns mental factors, such as pain and fatigue.  Still, it is important to start with the presence of a disability.

            But does a physical, or mental impairment alone determine who is truly Disabled?  My answer is no.  It does not, because being Disabled, with a capital "D,"  is more than having a physical or mental condition.  For me, being truly Disabled involves being part of the Disabled community and culture.  It is more than being a “fellow-traveler,” a person who has a physical or mental disability and rides along without fully joining the community and culture, without identifying and sharing with others who are similarly Disabled. 

             I'm not saying that everyone who has a true disability (small "d") has to join the community and culture--I'm simply saying that those who do not are not truly Disabled they way those who do join are disabled.

            Barbara McKee, an Albuquerque writer was such a fellow-traveler.   After using a wheelchair for 29 years, she wrote about her experiences, noting that for 23 years, she did not associate with others similarly disabled.  She did not join the community and failed to recognize the ways she has been part of the culture.  She does now, and she is glad to do so.  Click HERE to see what she wrote about her experiences.

            To me, that’s what it means to be truly Disabled.  It means more than having a disability.  It means connecting with the community and experiencing the culture.  I don't personally know Blair Hornstine, so I don't know if ever did either, or both.

            What is involved in embracing the community and culture of those who have disabilities?  Carol Gill, a clinical psychologist who is truly Disabled, lists the following core values in this culture:

  • An acceptance of human differences (e.g., physical, functional, racial, intellectual, economic/class).

  • A matter-of-fact orientation toward helping; an acceptance of human vulnerability and interdependence as part of life.

  • A tolerance for lack of resolution, for dealing with the unpredictable and living with unknowns or less-than-desired outcomes.

  • Disability humor - the ability to laugh at the oppressor and our own situations, to find something absurdly hilarious in almost anything, however dire.

  • Skill in managing multiple problems, systems, technology and assistants.

  • A sophisticated future orientation; an ability to construct complex plans taking into account multiple contingencies and realistically anticipated obstacles [I would add, obstacles that most often are disability related].

  • A carefully honed capacity for closure in interpersonal communication; the ability to read others' attitudes and conflicts in order to sort out, fill in the gaps and grasp the latent meaning in contradictory social messages.

  • A flexible, adaptive approach to tasks; a creativity stimulated by both limited resources and experience with untraditional modes of operating.

I would add

  • A recognition that the tacit roles and realities of daily life are actually social constructions, roles and realities that result from tacit expectations, perceptions, attitudes and physical behaviors by society at large, and

  • A sense of connection and understanding with anyone else who has a disability, a group solidarity, which, among other things, leads to recognizing the needs and best interests of all who have disabilities and at times placing them above one's self interests. 

Those who are truly Disabled experience and share at least some, if not all, of these core values.  To read more about what Dr. Gill had to say, click HERE.

            How does participation in this culture manifest itself?  That is, how can we tell when someone is truly Disabled?  There are many ways, depending upon the situation.  But returning to the matter of handicapped parking, a person who is truly Disabled:

  • Would only seek to qualify for such parking after it became truly necessary, when using standard parking spaces had become mostly unfeasible. I know someone who had polio and walked on braces and crutches since 1952 but didn’t get a disabled parking placard until fairly recently, when he had to stop walking and use a wheelchair, which meant he needed the extra width available in order to get his wheelchair out of the back seat of his car.

  • Even after it was necessary would not use a placard and park in a handicapped site, if there was another non-handicapped space available that would work as well, and

  • Would never, especially in the case of a non-visible disability, object to verification of his, or her disability to anyone asking for it; such a person would readily recognize that it is in his, or her best interest, as well as the best interest of the entire Disabled community, that such verification occur, given the number of fraudulent placard users.  In the state of California, all who have placards or disabled license plates are required to carry a statement regarding the nature of their disability signed by their doctor.

From my perspective, there is much more to being truly Disabled, with a capital "D," than the simple fact of a physical disability, or chronic illness.  It means embracing and connecting with the whole community and culture of those who have disabilities.



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