How Dare You Judge my Handicap Sticker

How Dare You Judge my Handicap Sticker

By Ellen Smith.

Having to go to appointments to my doctor here in Rhode Island, so we can again fill out the form for the state to confirm that I still qualify for a handicap sticker for me, causes a humiliating and heartbreaking feeling to have to be reminded that I have two incurable conditions. And yet, I have to get that signature to confirm that I am still dealing with this future. And then, when I am not in a wheelchair, thus appearing normal, I also have to deal with those of you out there who feel so free to judge people like me, despite possessing no knowledge of conditions that require the need for this. So many jump to the conclusion that I am probably not deserving any special compensation.

Ellen Smith and friend

So what has brought this judgment by others towards those of us with the  handicap placard? It reminds me of the unpleasant memories back in elementary school where one classmate would do something stupid, the teacher would ask who was responsible, not one would rat on that person nor would the person give themselves up. The result would be the entire class had to face the punishment. It always stuck with me that punishing the many for the sins of a few as being overly punitive and unfair, and here we are now as grown ups still facing that type of attitude. Thanks to those few out there, that have abused a handicap placard, you have given the green light for other people to assume that if we look normal, then we must have no need for these limited privileges. I think most of the abuse comes from individuals somehow obtaining a family member’s card and using it like their own. I agree that is wrong but it should not reflect on the legitimacy of those of us who need this capacity to park close to stores or businesses in which walking significant distance presents an obstacle. It doesn’t delete the majority of us that truly need this ability to park close to be able to enter a store.  Also, some states make it much easier for abuse of the placard. Talking with people from other states, I realize that each state has different requirements to obtain the handicap placard. For instance in California, all you need is a note from your doctor and when it expires,  you just reapply. So we cleary need to make the process of obtaining the placard more uniform across the country and also seriously consider two types - one that doesn’t expire for those of us with permanent incurable conditions and another type that would be a temporary situation for need. And both should require a visit to the doctor confirming either situation.

So, let me share just a few stories of disabled people that have been approached with judgement and what they are facing daily with their conditions:

  • A person living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a painful incurable connective tissue defect you are born with. This individual endured over twenty surgeries, many on the legs, to only be judged as they walked into a store, for the first time, instead of using the wheelchair they lived in for four years thanks to numerous surgical leg repairs and long hours of physical therapy. Instead of the joy of this hard earned accomplishment, this person was judged from using a placard by a person that didn’t see a wheelchair so therefore there must be no need for a sticker?
  • An MS patient returning to their car, walking proudly but with tremendous strength and caution to then being reamed for taking the space away from a “real person” needing this help. Would someone like to walk in their shoes to the terror and horror this condition can cause to their lives and body?
  • The cancer patient that comes to the car to a note on the windshield that they are being rude for taking up a space. This person is terminal, lost their hair and facing frequent chemo treatments leaving them weak. And someone else gets to judge their need instead of their doctor?
  • Then there is the woman with Turner’s syndrome gets approached in a parking lot of a mall for “abusing her placard” - this woman faces daily issues with hearing loss, fatigue and the threat of an aortic dissection and then gets judged like this?
  • Or how about a woman not able to walk far due to her medical issues that wrote to me: “Truly, I have put off getting my plaque because i don’t have the patience to be nice when a complete stranger comes up to me to berate me. And, i just don’t want that experience.” How sad is that that judgement being done by others is going far enough to prevent this person, who deserves this help, to not want to go through the process for fear of the possible judgement. You may say, why would she do that to herself, but trust me, when you live with a life altering disability, you don’t always have the determination and strength to keep fighting the injustices you face. It can take all the starch you have in your body to just get through your day.
  • And just reported today, a young college woman, upon arriving to campus parking, was interrogated by a security guard. He asked her whether she was using a placard that “belonged to someone else, or it’s not your grandmother’s, right? And if I look up your information, I’m going to find YOUR name?” She responded “yes, it’s my placard. I have chronic illnesses” Walking away from this insult, she was almost late for class and on the verge of unnecessary stress overload. This young woman lives with a life in an out of a wheelchair, tubes, pump bags, copes with not only chronic pain and fatigue from CRPS, joint hypermobility syndrome, mitochondrial dysfunction and dysautonomia. And here that one day she was able to attend without the wheelchair, she had to face and be confronted by this cruel judgement!

Tips for Those that Tend to Judge Others:

  • You should never judge a book by its cover, ever!
  • Don’t approach someone with rude comments - you are most likely attacking the person that truly needs this card. It is threatening and emotionally hurtful. You have no idea what they have been through and am going to continue to go through. Believe me, you don’t dream of having this card hanging on your car to look cool!
  • Just because someone doesn’t look handicapped, does not mean they are not dealing with a difficult condition. The words Invisible are used for a reason - you and I can’t see inside someone to truly understand what they are facing.
  • Your lack of understanding makes you a discriminating person who needs to learn to have an open mind when it comes to people living with disabilities. Just because you can’t see what is wrong doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
  • Do you realize all you do in life is being observed by your children or even grandchildren. We should be teaching our children to never judge others and be accepting of others, no matter their race, religion or disability! Where do you fit in?

Tips for those that need to use a handicap sticker:

  • Although it is terribly hurtful to be approach, try hard to be the bigger person and try to see if you can use this uncomfortable moment to educate them, although you owe them nothing.
  • Consider putting a small list of some of the things you face with your condition on the windshield to be read while you are not there to educate them.
  • Consider having in the car a small card about your condition you can hand to them and then walk away if talking is not in order
  • Do not get into it with them and if need be, report them either to the store staff or even the police if you feel you are not safe.
  • Remember, as much as it hurts and angers you, try to remember they are the people with problems - they are hurtful, discriminating and setting a terrible example of humanity and I bet you would rather deal with what you are facing then live in their shoes and be that person.
  • If you get lucky with your health and no longer need the placard, then be the better person and return it to help keep the need appropriate and not abused!

The intent of this article is to inform and educate in an effort to attempt to begin a process of examining our collective attitudes toward the handicapped with the goal of increased public understanding of the challenges faced by the truly handicapped. You can’t  judge a book by it’s cover. Many  people live with invisible illnesses. Why not turn this around and believe what a person tells you, trust first, instead of jumping to judgement. With my condition Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, I can be walking a short distance one day and then be back to a wheelchair for some days, depending of subluxing of the hips, tibia, and fibula. It is heartbreaking when things slip backwards, and then to have to add your judgement too?

Let’s try to be kinder, more tolerant  and work towards becoming an understanding society.

Ellen Lenox Smith is co-director of the Medical Cannabis Advocacy for the US Pain Foundation and also has written extensively on chronic pain issues.

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Authored by: Ellen Lenox Smith

Ellen Lenox Smith and her husband Stuart live in Rhode Island. They are co-directors for medical cannabis advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation, along with Ellen on the board and they both also serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition. For more information about medical cannabis visit their website.

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I have had a bad knee replacement that got infected and I’ve had 5 surgeries to try to get rid of the infection and then the last surgery was because my kneecap had completely broken and the pieces needed to be removed. I developed crps from all the surgeries and it’s the kind that spreads. So I honestly don’t get out very much because I truly can’t walk very far even with the walker. (I need to get my doctor to go ahead and prescribe a wheelchair.) I know at this point it isn’t going to get better. It sucks when people come up to me and give me that mean look, until I am able to get the walker out of the back of the car. Those people usually look away pretty quickly by that time. I waited for a long time to even admit to myself that I needed the handicapped placard because I always told myself that there were always worse off people. I finally had to accept that I truly needed it. I only use it at places that are very small, like our dogs vet to pick up her medication, or Walgreens so that I can pick out my own cards for birthdays. Otherwise my husband usually drives and he will drop me off close for places where I won’t be walking much and then he will go park in a normal spot.(if we go to dinner or something) I do now notice people who don’t have a placard or a handicapped license plate who park in those spots just because they don’t care and they think they are more important than someone who is handicapped more often now. I never used to notice that until I actually became handicapped. (it could also be an honest mistake where they maybe forgot to put the placard up, so I try to think not all people are bad who do that and I have never said anything to anyone). In our town we have a Facebook page for moms of our town. This was a discussion on there a couple weeks ago. I learned that this poor woman not only got yelled at, but was shoved and she fell down because some jerk didn’t see her license plate that had the handicapped sign on it. She said she was having a better day, so she parked further down, so that someone who was having a worse day could park closer. She has an invisible disease, but she has every right as anyone else who is handicapped to park in those places. The person who shoved her didn’t even apologize! She got their license plate number and was hoping the police could find this mean lady. I was appalled that someone took it to that level.

Cheri Futt

Thank you for your excellent article. I am literally sick and tired, having CRPS since I was 45, and I am sick and tired of people judging others. The general public needs much more education on invisible illnesses. Hardly anyone, unless they also have it themselves, knows what CRPS is. And I really don’t feel like constantly explaining it. In my state, one fills out a form for a handicapped placard that has to be signed by a medical specialist who states that you have a disability that necessitates the placard. It then has to be taken in person to the DMV to get the handicapped placard. There is also a set of papers that the DMV prints your name on that and had to be carried with the placard, much like you must carry your car regustration with your car. If anyone questions you, especially a security guard or policeman, all you have to do is show them along with your ID, and they know it’s not someone else’s placard. I can’t drive, so if my driver drops me off at the door, she does not park in a handicapped space. If we both need to go inside, she does park in a handicapped space, but never in one that is a van/wheelchair space. No one has ever questioned me, maybe because I don’t wear make-up any more and use a cane, but if they did, I would tell them I have a very painful, incurable disease called CRPS. I would then tell them to look it up online when they get home because it would take me an hour to explain it and I don’t have that kind of time. I’m often asked in public if I just had back surgery or a knee replacement. I also tell them the same thing. I also tell them there are many invisible illnesses and people aren’t comfortable discussing them in public, so maybe in the future they should not ask personal questions like that. I tell them that most people suffering invisible illnesses are in chronic pain, sometimes have depression, are questioned by their own family, and it is a personal, painful thing to talk about with strangers. I also tell them because of the pain, those who have these diseases want to do their business and then get home as soon as possible. If you have this problem a lot, you should write a letter to the editor to your own local newspaper as Suzanne Stewart did.


Leslie Meadows-

Love your great response! Yep, some judgemental folks needs to be told MYOB. No need for epistle explanations about “invisible” maladies. Millions of folks have chronic lung diseases and don’t don O2 backpacks or rolling O2, millions more have heart dz which deems them cardiac invalids. The latter is far more common than any other “invisible” dz. I hope their middle fingers still work fine and are ready to use whenever the situation arises It’s appropriate.👆

Just last week I was at the WV Capitol and my consultant parked in the disability spot used my placard and as I got out of his truck (ever so gently, 2 messed up ankles and 2 surgeries which did not fix the problem, advanced fibro and 5 bulging and herniated dicks, the short list) a lady near the parking area said you need a placard to part there so I pointed to it and said it’s on the dash. There is no way of hanging it. She questioned my disability so I asked her if I wasn’t sick enough did I not limp enough for her. I said I’m 45 and a bit vain so I joke I turned my limp into a strut but I work hard NOT looking so disabled. She proceeded to tell me how she is such a huge advocate for disabled people and I followed up with “you just failed at it” and walked on. (ever so gently) As I walked into the capitol I fought off tears and was with my consultant I can not tell you the humiliation. It’s 1 thing to BE disabled it’s another to be humiliated in front of a friend over it.

I agree, it’s no bodies business what your disability is. People don’t know me, spinalcord injury left side paralysis, I’ve trained for 15 years to leave my cane in the house. The wheel chair got sold with it’s memories of my injury. I was 43 and my nurse talked me into learning my strength and using it to get out of the house. So when it comes to parking I use the placard at the store, it gets me closer to get a cart and use it for support. My leg drag is obvious but if not for that, people might wonder why I use a placard, it’s none of they’re business, but would be nice if they help get me a cart, or give me a few kind words to make me smile now and then.

Larry F

With CRPS of all limbs I’ve had a plate & placard for 30 years and encountered the same looks (and dirty notes left on my windshield from ‘real’ handicapped people), especially when I was younger. But there are things we ourselves do with those placards that are also ridiculous.
First, though, there’s a comment above to be compassionate to those of us too lazy or irresponsible to apply for a placard. If that’s the case, let’s do away with handicapped spaces, period. Any Idiot with a head cold or hangover may as well be given fair access to close up parking just for having a bad day.
As to legitimate plate & placard holders: they are for your use, not for your family. When you pull into a HP spot, just park in one. I’ve seen too many disabled people park on the line so that the next HP spot is useless for the typical handicapped person who needs their door opened wide to get in and out, or who thinks their car is special and takes up two handicapped spaces to protect their vehicle. Lastly, a placard hanging from the mirror, which should be common sense, blocks part of your view and should be taken down when actually driving. Most placards even tell you that if you bother to read them.

Janice Snyder

Very great analogy comparing the misuse of handicap placards to that of the punishment of an entire elementary classroom for the transgressions of only one or just a few.

However one earlier commentors described what could be placard abuse when two people in a vehicle with a placard park in a handicapped space, and only the “able body[sic]” one exits the vehicle. How does one actually know that they are both not disabled and the apparently non-disabled one, popped out leaving the the other disabled one in the car.


Growing up, my grandparents had handicapped plates on their car. We used to dirty looks for parking near the handicapped spots but not using them when my grandparents were not with us. My husband has a placard that we keep on the dashboard of our car. When he is not with me, I will not use it. I get funny looks when I pay to park on the street. I am looking to get plates for our car as I have a rare disease & have very painful joints somedays.

Twanda Jaones

On the flip side of all you people in pain that can’t walk…… You need to understand the people like me who use a wheelchair cannot use the other parking spaces you all are able to use. Those blue striped lines attached to those blue spaces are for wheelchairs to load and unload. If you all take up parking spaces because you are in pain, where are we supposed to park????? There is also the problem that cars cannot see us rolling behind them. I realize you feel entitled to use those spaces but I live with 24/7 pain on top of not being able to walk so yes I feel a bit more entitled than the rest of you.

I disagree with making the Feds equalizing all handicap ped placards! They are the last agency we need in our business! The states are doing fine & so what if ppl look at us funny it’s not any of their business,my middle finger still works fine🤗

Kathleen Kaiser

This issue is a concern but there is another one that really irritates me and it’s something handicapped people do and they legally have a handicap placard. I’ve seen this at the grocery store. Husband and wife pull into a handicap spot and then the able body person gets out and goes into the store while the handicapped person stays seated in the car. To me this is an abuse of the spot since the handicapped person who needs the space is staying in the car there is no reason to take up a handicap spot.

R. Michael Maddox

Tell em to KISS YOUR A__! I have never had anyone say anything, but have seen some dirty looks. I have a placard AND Disabled Veteran Tag. I feel I don’t owe anyone an explanation . And I refuse to offer one. If you truly need the placard then YOU know the truth and that is all necessary. One day those idiots will have a case of KARMA, and she is a [edit]!


Just because the handicapp/disabled person is not in a wheelchair, limps, users a walker or a walking cane does not mean that the health condition is not…..disabling. Personally, I can walk, speak, do not use a wheelchair, a walker, or a cane but, the pain IS there, constantly, continuously, and there is no cure.

I am not sure if simple callousness, disrespect, or lack of compassion makes a non “disabled” person believe that another is abusing the parking privilege or what. A person may even be able to seem like they are perfectly “normal” yet, have a disability warranting a little……understanding.

If someone decides to volunatarily repair or work on their own abode electrical system, electrocutes themselves, this is NOT justification for the power supply company to come to a community and shut off everyone elses electrical connection simply to “protect” them from themselves..This would be very much akin to the “policy” of protecting people with pain management issues by sanctioning effective medication, responsibly used, to one and all.

Back to the subject. We all see people that appear to not having disabilites using the reserved handicapp accesible parking. It happens everyday. There are those with some disabilities that may not take the time and effort to apply for the marker that identififies the person as needing better accessibility, easier access to where they intend to go. Lack of…..responsibility? Self entitlement? In any case, with or without a “sticker” notating a disability, maybe a little more compassion is needed. Don’t get me wrong, the person that did use the required steps to acquire the identification as to be disabled should be able to accesss the parking slot or easier access to the destination without any hassle..

With appropriate identification making the general public aware that said person has applied and received the privilege for a better parking location or a more practical access for the disabled, then whether or not said person does not have an apparent disability does not mean that they do not have the real need for easier accessability to their destination.Give respect and patience, get respect and patience. My two cents worth.

Bob Schubring

There’s another side to this problem, which Ellen actually touched on: Envy.

Some of us discriminate against people, because the people accomplished something.

The envy-stricken live emotionally in their childhood, imagining that they just didn’t quite get their share of parental handouts, and seek a symbolic handout from someone else in authority. Witnessing a person who seems to want no handouts or appears somewhat self-sufficient, triggers these feelings of envy and inadequacy. The envy and inadequacy feelings aren’t our fault…we can’t help triggering the feelings…but we are targeted with them once they are triggered.

It helps, in a confrontation with one of these people, to ask them if they’d like to have our symptoms for a couple of hours. Would you like to have a chest pain that strikes you when you walk 50 steps at a brisk pace? Would you like a case of diabetic nerve pain, and having to worry that your foot will be amputated next month?

Make it seem silly for them to envy the disease you’ve got. And harp on the fact that they’re being driven by envy. Nobody genuinely cares that much, about some abstract imaginary “needy person” who “deserves” to use that handicapped parking space. An actual caregiver, traveling with a disabled person, has reasons to get angry if someone uses a handicapped space that the person doesn’t need. Nobody is going to get emotionally wound up over an abstract concept. The person who gets in your face, defending the rights of an abstract imaginary person who “deserves” to use your parking space, is driven by envy. He wishes he had the privilege of using that space and wants to learn the secret of how he could be able to use it. So share with him what he has to have, in order to qualify to use it. Ask him if he really envies you now, knowing what he has to go through to suffer an invisible disability.

Sandy Auriene Sullivan

Oh that’s #1 on my list of summing up being a patient in chronic pain. Thing is my brother who is very much end stage cancer [spreading so fast he’s going for chemo now which I wish he wouldn’t; but hope it works…] looks ‘normal’ on the outside. He can still currently drive and he can walk. Doesn’t mean he isn’t suffering pain and fatigue!

I have been stopped at my car by another woman for using a handicap placard. However, after talking to her for 60 seconds, she apologized to me, said she was just upset because she couldn’t drive at all anymore. Her vision was going too. Turned what could have been a very ugly moment into a learning experience.

It just perfectly sums up how people see us. We have the disabled placard with us; some face it at the pharmacy, some at the doctor, hospital or specialist. Had CNAs and PAs question my ‘pain’ because as my family have told my primary specialist -

“Sandy makes it look easy”

Living with an invisible illness without the visual aide of a cane will get us judged. As we all know too well, those ‘looks’ just getting out of the car [doesn’t matter that I obviously pull myself out using my right side…] those looks, that pass so much judgement without a word hurt as much as the fool who confronts us.

Katie Olmstead

Yup. We have all faced this. I loved a letter to the editor some years ago in my town. Written by a person who said that she uses her placard so that it is easier to shop and she can save her energy to later DANCE. Right? Having a disability does not mean that we can’t also have joy, in whatever form possible.
I wouldn’t want to post on my windshield what my disabilities are. It’s not the business of some idle stranger. If someone questions me, I try to be polite, and depending on how much time and energy I have, I might explain about invisible disabilities. My short default response is “Google “invisible disabilities” and be grateful you don’t have them.”

Ellen, thank you ! That was a wonderful article & so true! Nobody “expects” someone Beautiful and confidant like you and like many with invisible illnesses to “need” a HC placard. They don’t get it, that it has nothing to do with “looks”, or confidence! It has to do with something “broken” on the inside! I had someone place a horribly nasty note on my car one day . I cried and cried because in that note that person wrote “How dare you……& at the end they said “I hope you become truly HC for the rest of your life so you know what it feels like! Oh My Gosh! I cried and cried! But then, like you, I got strong again and I looked for a way to educate! I wrote a letter to the editor of my towns newspaper and explained the entire scenario! I’m hoping that since it happened at a tiny local market parking lot; maybe -just maybe the person who did it possibly saw my article in newspaper! Thank you Ellen! You are so loved by so many!



Frances Duys

Unfortunately there are many people out there who use handicapped parking passes illegally. Many of those asking are simply trying to protect the legitimate use of those passes.

I have required the use of an assistive walking device since an accident when I was 46. I am used to getting dirty or questioning looks when I pull into a disabled space because I do not “look” disabled until I exit my car with my crutch or cane. I do not mind being questioned because I want to make sure that those spots are available to those who need them.

I understand the pain associated with revisiting your condition. Rarely does a day go by when I do not mourn my inability to live the life that I once had. But as long as people are willing to use passes that do not belong to them we will be questioned.

I actually thank people who question me because I choose to believe that their motives are not about me but about rather about making sure that those spots are available to those who need them. We have to look out for each other even if it makes us uncomfortable.

Drew Pavil

I am torn on this subject as I see the writer’s point, but I also see how people speaking out against abuse of handicap parking helps the disabled community. Yes, people shouldn’t judge others, but we all do like it or not. Handicap parking, like airline wheelchair service, has become horribly abused by people who lack shame. Perhaps public shaming is the only way to deter this terrible abuse


There were times in my life I faced such judgement from having a handicapped placard. I never felt any need nor “obligation” to offer any explanation. I handled the response simply by nicely, but firmly stating “Yes, I am differently abled.My medical situation is my business and the business of my physicians. Thank you. Hope you have a great day.” Nobody ever said anything after that…It’s nobody’s business. Simple as that.

If a security guard were to hound me, I’d still explain nothing, offer my license for ID and the show the placard from my rearview mirror for the guard to match my I’D to my placard.

Really, I don’t think strangers are the least interested in our medical sagas, but rather interested in confirming that a HC placard belongs to someone in the car who is a differently abled driver or differently abled passenger…Just my 2 cents!

Tony Hardy

Its very true and sad. Most health professionals, i was very polite to put professionals on that because 95% of them truly don’t care and look at sick people or people with medical issues as a money maker for them. They don’t care about people or care to want to try to help or cure them. Health care and medications should not cost so more than a house or car does or medication that cost $1000 of dollars. Im a man and got billed for a pregnant test, just so they could add on another dollar amount. It’s sad to see what they do, and should be a crime.