Handicapped parking is one of the more controversial issues in the multiple sclerosis (MS) community. Many people have mixed feelings about the need to park in designated parking spaces that offer some level of increased access to public and private facilities. The social stigma and lack of understanding from others can make the decision to obtain a disabled parking permit a difficult one.
While I’ve never been subject to insensitive comments — “but you don’t LOOK disabled” or “you really shouldn’t be parking there” — I do remember considering whether getting a permit might be a good idea or not. I had only been diagnosed with MS for about one year and was managing my limitations well, but I knew that it would be easier to get around if I had one.
When I first mentioned it to my neurologist, he didn’t seem to seriously consider that I needed one. But during an appointment only a few months later, he changed his mind.
What changed? I described to my doctor how I had “tried to walk on air” by stepping off a curb and falling flat on my face in a parking lot outside of a Mexican restaurant. The food in my take-out box was miraculously spared, but my ego and knees were bruised.
After this incident, I was more conscious of carefully watching my feet when I walked. That became a habit my physical therapist helped me to (mostly) break years later when I underwent balance/vestibular retraining.
When I told my neurologist about this particularly spectacular fall, he asked me questions related to mobility. Had I fallen any other time? Yes, I had tripped up my stairs by catching my feet on the front of the steps. Was it difficult to walk for farther distances? Yes, my legs would get really heavy and feel sluggish.
My neurologist suggested that as winter approached, sidewalks and parking lots would become more dangerous. My doctor didn’t want me to be or create a safety hazard by slipping and falling into the street or in front of a car in a parking lot. He wanted me to get a disabled parking permit and retrieved an application he signed in the office.
Our community speaks
I surveyed our MS Facebook community about disabled parking permits and here is what they shared:
- 93% have a valid disabled parking permit
- 36% use their permit “every time I go out, regardless”
- 36% use their permit “most of the time, if a convenient space is available”
- 14% use their permit “some of the time, if I’m having a ‘bad’ day”
- 7% use their permit “hardly ever”
The number one reason for not having a permit was embarrassment and a common reason given for not using a permit was a feeling that “other people need the parking spaces more than I do.”
Many different types of mobility aids are used by our MS community members and some people use more than one:
- 83% use a cane, walking stick, or arm crutches
- 42% use a rollator or walker
- 17% use a motorized scooter
- 17% use a manual wheelchair
- 17% use prescription orthotic inserts in shoes
- 8% use a motorized wheelchair
- 8% use orthopedic devices, such as AFO (ankle foot orthosis)
- 8% use the grocery cart at the store to help get around
Symptoms or circumstances that led to folks obtaining a permit include:
- Difficulty walking distances
- Loss of balance and stability
- Spasticity and/or numbness in legs
- Shortness of breath
- Knee and low back pain
One person mentioned that his/her neurologist initiated the discussion about disabled parking when they were diagnosed with MS. One person mentioned that “parking was nearly impossible where I worked” and thus needed a permit. Another person obtained a disabled parking permit in advance of “a big trip that required a lot of walking” and “wanted to be prepared just in case.”
Obtaining a disabled parking permit
Each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) establishes criteria for disabilities that qualify for disabled parking permits — for example, reduced mobility, impaired vision, or limited respiratory or cardiac function. People with MS who have a qualifying disability can often apply for a disabled parking permit with the assistance of their doctor.
Different types of permits are available — temporary permits are for disabilities that are expected to improve within a few months, while long-term or permanent permits would be more appropriate for people with MS whose condition may fluctuate but never go away. Permanent permits are valid for a specified number of years, depending upon your state’s guidelines. For the state of Virginia, permanent permits are valid for five years.
The requirements for permit renewal differ by state as well. Some states and the District of Columbia require a new medical certification form with each renewal application, while others such as Virginia do not. Some states, such as Texas, also require that you submit a copy of the original permit application with your renewal application.
Permits are issued as a placard/hangtag or special handicapped license plate (only for permanent disabilities). The advantage of a hangtag is its portability and association with the person not the vehicle. Your DMV may also issue a card to carry in your wallet that verifies the validity of your disabled parking permit.
The easiest way to locate the requirements specific to your state is to search “disabled parking permit” plus the name of your state or district.
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Lisa Emrich is a patient advocate, accomplished speaker, author of the award-winning blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA, and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers. Lisa uses her experience to educate patients, raise disease awareness, encourage self-advocacy, and support patient-centered research. Lisa frequently works with non-profit organizations and has brought the patient voice to health care conferences and meetings worldwide. Follow Lisa on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.