03/09/2013 09:50 am ET Updated May 01, 2013

Benefit of the Doubt

Recently, I've been faced with an uncomfortable situation that seems to keep happening. More often than I care to recall, I've had conversations just like this:

Person: I saw you have a handicapped parking tag. What's going on?
Me: Oh, I'm disabled.
Person: Bad back or what?
Me: Ha, kind of. Bad everything.
Person: Oh yeah?
Me: Yeah. Bad back, bad knees... everything.
Person: Ha, really?
Me: Yes. I have a condition where my joints and muscles don't connect the way most people's do, so it's hard for me to walk or stand for very long.
Person: Oh. Wait... you're not joking?
Me: No, not at all. I'm disabled.
Person: Oh. I was kidding. But...
Me: I'm actually disabled.
Person: Oh.

I'm surprised that I've had this conversation (nearly word-for-word) so often. In fact, I had to have it twice in a five-day period -- once with a parent during an outing with the Girl Scout troop I co-lead and once with someone who works at my office.

I try to keep the conversation light-hearted at first, but once it's clear that my conversational partner is getting a little too light-hearted, I need to make sure that they know I'm serious about the fact that the blue tag hanging on my rearview mirror is mine.

When I first got the parking tag, I assumed I would get glares and stares. I was afraid that strangers would assume that I stole or "borrowed" it from an elderly relative or something. I like to be an optimist, but I'm also a realist and I know that some people will see something they think isn't right and not consider all the possibilities. I was prepared for attitude from strangers and I've definitely received it.

However, I was not prepared for that same attitude from people who are not strangers. I figured that the people with whom I interact -- friends, people I work with, etc. -- would at least give me the benefit of the doubt. I thought that they wouldn't cast me as a liar and a phony by assuming that the tag isn't mine or by suggesting that I acquired it by less-than-honest means. Why would I joke about being disabled? Do they think I just have a really poor sense of humour? Why can't people take what I say at face value -- ESPECIALLY when that something is about my own health?

I'm not totally sure how to react to situations like this in the future. I've been given advice ranging from "ignore it" (not helpful) to "turn it back on them" (I'd prefer to avoid unnecessary confrontation, but done properly, this might work). Luckily, no one in the category of People Who Are Not Strangers has been deliberately rude or accusatory, although questioning my reasons for having one when I "look fine" can be seen as accusatory. As of now, I've been holding steady, not laughing, and just repeating "I am disabled" until people get that it's not a joke.

When I put up my handicapped parking tag in my car, people will comment on how "convenient" it is that I have it with me. The tag doesn't make my life "convenient"; it makes it possible.