Contributed by Anthea Skinner

Have you ever seen someone using an accessible parking space and suspected that they were cheating the system? Did you know that many disabilities are invisible and have no obvious external signs?

We’ve all seen the international symbol for disability printed on every accessible parking space. It’s a little blue stick figure in a wheelchair, showing everyone that a space is reserved for people with disability. The only problem is, not everyone with a disability looks like that stick figure. Very few of us are blue, not all of us use wheelchairs and many of us don’t look disabled at all.

People with invisible disabilities often face harassment and discrimination from people who assume that they are using accessible parking illegally. This harassment can cause serious distress to people living with debilitating illness.

What is an Invisible Disability?

An invisible disability, as the name suggests, is a disability that cannot be easily seen by others. Although they may appear able-bodied at first glance, people with invisible disabilities often live with symptoms like pain, fatigue, balance problems, cognitive or mental dysfunction and vision and hearing impairments. Some invisible disabilities fluctuate, meaning that someone may be able to walk one day, but require a wheelchair the next. People with invisible disabilities often experience discrimination from both able bodied people, who may not believe that they are disabled, and from other disabled people who may envy their ability to “pass” as able bodied.

People with invisible disabilities can require Disability Parking Permits for many reasons. Accessible spaces are located close facilities, this allows shortened walking times and access to hired mobility scooters and wheelchairs. It avoids exposure to heat, cold and exhaust fumes and allows people to use their limited energy on their chosen activity, not on getting to and from the car. The close proximity of accessible parking also limits exposure to hazards such as traffic and uneven footpaths. Accessible parking spaces are also wider than average, allowing extra room for people with limited or unpredictable movement, or who need assistance to get in and out of the car.

Discrimination and Abuse

Sadly, people with invisible disabilities often face harassment from people who assume that they are cheating the system. In January this year, Tasmanian Steven Maksimovic reported being harassed six times over a three-month period for using his Disability Parking Permit in and around Hobart. Some of these confrontations caused distress to Maksimovic’s six-year-old son who witnessed the events.

In November last year Victorian woman Justine Van Den Borne, who lives with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) caused a storm on social media defending her right to a use accessible parking after she found a nasty note taped to her wind screen saying “Did you forget your wheelchair???” Justine responded to the anonymous note on Facebook, saying “On the day you saw me I was having a good day. I was walking with my daughter unaided having a nice day. Thank you for ruining that. You made me feel like people were looking at me, the exact way I feel when I can’t walk properly. I am sick of people like yourself abusing me on my good days for using a facility I am entitled to.”

Although these are extreme examples, people with invisible disabilities often face more subtle forms of discrimination when parking. These might include being stared at, or hearing people make rude comments about them under their breath. Discrimination can have very real effects on the lives of people with invisible disabilities, making them feel self conscious, unsafe or guilty for using the facilities that they are entitled to. These feelings can in turn lead to an unwillingness to go out, increased social isolation, anxiety and depression.

The Blue Badge Insurance Guide to Common Invisible Disabilities

There are literally thousands of conditions that may cause invisible disabilities. Here are just a few:

  • Back Injuries,
  • Brain Injuries,
  • Chronic Illnesses,
  • Heart Conditions,
  • Muscular Disorders,
  • Neurological Disorders,
  • Seizure Disorders,
  • Recent Surgery.

Who Can Park in an Accessible Space?

Australia has strict regulations outlining who can hold a Disability Parking Permit. Permit holders have all completed detailed forms that have been authorised by their doctors and approved by their local council. Displaying a Disability Parking Permit is proof that a person is eligible to use an accessible space, no matter what they look like.

People without disabilities are also legally allowed to park in accessible parking spaces if they are stopping to pick up someone who has a disability. In this case, they must display the Disability Parking Permit of the person with a disability. Remember, not everyone who is eligible to use accessible parking is obviously disabled. Anyone displaying a permit has already proven their eligibility and demanding further proof is harassment.

Staying Safe while Parking with an Invisible Disability

Do you have an invisible disability? Have you ever been harassed or felt unsafe while parking? There are a few things you can do to protect yourself.

If someone confronts you, do not engage or argue with them. You do not have to tell them anything about your disability; that is private information between you and your doctor. You may wish to make a short comment like “I have a legal permit”.

If you are followed or harassed, make your way inside to the nearest building. Explain your situation to a staff member and, if necessary, ask them to call security or the police. If someone leaves a nasty note on your car, be sure to take a photo of it to provide proof of what happened.

Finally, if you repeatedly face problems in a specific area, you may like to raise awareness of the issue by contacting your local newspaper. Many people misguidedly think they are helping disabled people by calling out parking “cheats” and may reconsider their actions once they realise that invisible disabilities exist.

Are you a person with an invisible disability? Share your accessible parking story with the Blue Badge Insurance.