I finally did it. I asked my doctor for an application for a handicapped parking permit. It took me two years to work up the nerve, but I did it.
It’s not that I thought she would refuse to sign it. She didn’t even hesitate. In fact, she informed me she had selected the five-year option instead of the one-year, so I wouldn’t need to reapply for a while. My doctor had my back – literally.
I had avoided getting one not because I didn’t need one or think I deserved one, but rather out of fear of what others would think when they saw me use it.
I’m fat. And I’m disabled. Fat is not my disability. But when fat people are also disabled, the two tend to merge in the minds of casual observers. How often do we see obese people portrayed in a mocking way riding scooters? The assumption is the person is too fat to walk. And the assumption is also they got that fat because they are lazy or gluttonous.
Last year, I saw a horrible viral picture of an obese woman who had fallen off her scooter while in the chip aisle of a grocery store. Instead of helping her, someone took a photo and posted it on the internet for people to laugh at the fat woman on the floor. I’m sure people justified their laughter by assigning her blame for her own undoing. She was reaching for chips, after all. Maybe if she ate a few less chips, she could ditch that scooter, am I right?
Then I happened upon an article in which the woman from the photo told her story. She was in the scooter not because of her weight, but because she suffers from a debilitating back condition that affects the thin and the overweight equally. A condition very similar to the one I suffer from.
But no one considered that perhaps there was a reason other than indulgence in junk food that she needed help getting around. Or that perhaps when someone is in constant pain, they might seek some comfort in treats like the occasional bag of chips to give themselves a bit of reprieve from the joy-sucking black hole that is chronic pain. They simply saw a fat person fall off her scooter while reaching for some chips. (Serves her right I guess?)
I have reached the point in my degenerative condition that I cannot walk more than about 15 feet without pain, or 25 with a rest or assistance. I have handled this by not moving at all most of the time, becoming a virtual shut-in, and by enduring the pain when I do need to move.
When I am at the grocery store, and I can lean my upper body on a cart, my back is pain-free. I can walk indefinitely. It’s painfully, no pun intended, obvious that if I got myself a walker, I would be able to move around freely. But I haven’t gotten one.
When I went to the hospital for an MRI on my back, there were wheelchairs available for patient use. My husband pulled one out for me. I initially refused. Surely they were there for people more deserving than I. What would people think, looking at me in this wheelchair? I felt like fraud. But then, barely a fraction of the way to the MRI department, I was frozen with pain and relented.
As I moved through the hospital pain free, my husband pushing me, I felt foolish for initially resisting. When faced with pain or pride, I’d chosen pain. But this was a hospital. Fat or thin, in a hospital, people assume if you are in a wheelchair you are sick.
What about at the mall? Or walking down the street? Or at the park with my children? When people see me pushing a walker, will they know I’d need it even if I wasn’t fat, or will they think I ate myself into a disability? Will they blame me for my own pain? Will they shame me?
Self-consciousness over my body is nothing new to me. I’ve been fat my whole life, and I’ve never been comfortable with it. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to care less about the judgments from the invisible audience.
Self-consciousness about my disability is new. I have always been fat, but I used to be active. Sure, I was fat, but I walked for miles every day, no one could call me out of shape. I could also handle it if I were thin and disabled. I don’t think people are often judged for having a disability in and of itself. It is the combination of being fat and disabled that keeps me from seeking the help I need.
It is that the fat erases the disability. Obesity has been a spectacle since the side show days. I’m not anxious to put myself on display.
But I am in pain, and I always will be. I do not have an injury that I can just wait out. I do not have a condition that would be eased by losing the weight. And it’s hard to lose weight when you can’t move anyway. I have a permanent disability, and part of coming to terms with that will need to include accepting that being a fat person using a mobility aid will come with unfair and inaccurate assumptions.
Let’s face it, though, it speaks more to the character of the person making the assumption than it does to my own. It’s time to prioritize self-care over the perception of judgmental assholes.
And when I finally break down and get that walker, you better get out of my way.