One of the oddest things people seem to think, in my point of view, is that most handicapped people are old. This has been brought home to me numerous times. It will be helpful for you to know that my sister, myself and my nieces all have generally looked younger than we really are, at least on most good days, by about five to fifteen years. My mother looked younger than she was until she was in her 60’s or 70’s. Plus, we all use cosmetics, the progeny of an Avon lady.
I use a handicapped placard and have permanently disabled vehicle license plates, which I did not even know existed until I was twenty-eight and had gone back to college to get my accounting BA at Sonoma State University. There I met Anthony Tusler, who was also handicapped (he had two paralyzed legs and used forearm cuff crutches, which I have had the dubious privilege of revisiting in recent years). He was the director of Disabled Student Services and over cocktails one evening at the local watering hole, when I was complaining about all the walking on campus and how far away I had to park, he suggested I get disabled person license plates, and a placard for use when I ride in others’ cars. He walked me (ha!) through the simple process (you have to be permanently ambulatorily handicapped and have a doctor sign off on this fact). What a difference it has made in my life. I am often able to park close enough so that I can make it the distance to a front door without having to sit down and take a break on the way, or having to skip the venue entirely. And, sometimes, if there’s no close parking, I do just turn around and go home.
What I did not expect was that people would think I was abusing the privilege.
I cannot even estimate how many times an older person, often only about five or ten years older than myself, or even appearing to be my own age, now that I am seventy, has come up to my car and angrily asked me to roll down my window and said, “You can’t park here! This is for HANDICAPPED people!” To which I have answered, sometimes with a little impatience but in later years with almost no emotion, “I AM handicapped. I had polio as a child and I have a paralyzed leg.” To which the rasty old person would invariably respond, “Oh. Well, you don’t look old enough to be handicapped.” Though I am rarely at a loss for words, this never ceases to leave me speechless. Sometimes, Rasty Old Person will say, “Oh, I’m sorry” and turn and walk away in embarrassment. Or, “How could you have had polio?” I always want to say, “You don’t have to be old and ugly to be handicapped.” But I have kept that comment to myself.
I see so many young handicapped people; teenagers or in their twenties to forties. Some of them in wheelchairs, some on crutches, some driving, some struggling to walk without assistive devices. When they’re sitting in the drivers’ seat, I’ll bet they get old angry people approaching the all the time.
Disability is not ageist.