Ronan was a late walker. At one point he’d had the ability to stand and cruise the furniture, but he started to lose his balance. He started to lose his confidence. He began to lose some of the gross motor skills he’d developed as well. When we realized how delayed his physical development was becoming, we sought help. Help included physical therapy, positive reinforcement, and lots of prayers. After months and months of hard work, Ronan was able to walk all by himself.
That happened one Sunday morning right before Mass. My husband and I were in the courtyard holding hands with Ronan. Ronan let go and walked into the sanctuary independently. He walked through the entire church, the annex, the parish center and around the outside of the church, too. With how confident he was, and with how much ground he covered, it was as if he’d never struggled with walking before. I’ll never forget that day. It was May 1st, 2005. Because it was such a huge accomplishment, I celebrate it, even all these years later, like I would celebrate a birthday.
Ronan doesn’t zoom all over the place like he did before. He doesn’t climb things like he used to either. Once a daredevil who knew absolutely no bounds, Ronan’s more content to sit and watch life go by. When we have to go out somewhere, he will ask for assistance almost as soon as we get going. He gets tired and his pace slows down considerably. That can happen rather quickly. Because he loses strength and stamina, and because of the other medical issues he has, when we go out of the house, we look for and park in handicap spots. I don’t always use them, especially if there is a regular parking spot open close by, but I appreciate that they are available to us.
For years, I fought getting a placard. “There are other people worse off than us who need that parking spot more!” I’d argue. A dear family member convinced me otherwise. “Cat, the placard and that spot closest to entrance is not for you; it’s for Ronan.” Humbly, I requested a handicap placard for Ronan at his next doctor’s appointment. It was granted no questions asked.
Most of the time, people who park near us are kind and generous with the space Ronan and I need to maneuver him out of the vehicle. Other times, people stare. I don’t let their ignorant stares bother me too much. I have other things more pressing to worry about than what they think of me or him. When we’re in the parking lot, my biggest worry is getting Ronan safely from the car to wherever it is we’re going (therapy clinic, store, school gym). Everything and everyone else takes a backseat.
A couple of weeks ago after picking up the kids from school, we pulled into a handicap spot closest to the crosswalk at the grocery store. Ronan already had a full and physically taxing day, so I asked my girls to run into the store for me. Fiona and Izzy immediately said they would while the rest of us waited in the car. While my daughters were inside picking up the few items we needed, a man came out of the store with his grocery cart and groceries. He loaded his stuff in his truck then walked across the road to the handicap spot directly in front of me. Under my breath, I said, “No, no, no. Don’t leave it there. Walk it over, buddy.”
He did not walk the cart over. Instead, he left it in the handicapped parking spot in front of us. He was in no rush because instead of driving off, he stood outside his truck and smoked a cigarette. I contemplated moving the cart. The way he left it was in such a position that no one would be able to safely pull into the spot.
As I stewed, Fiona walked out of the store, I quickly called her and said, “Hey sweetie, see the cart in the spot in front of us? Can you walk it over to the cart corral?”
Yep, she could.
And yep, she did.
With jaw dropped, the man, who was still standing outside his truck, watched my kid walk 3 short spots over and put the cart away. Now, I know that some people don’t “wear” their special needs on them like others do (Ronan is a perfect example – he “looks so typical” until you know him and see that he’s got a lot going on), and this guy could’ve had some physical limitations that could’ve prevented him from putting that cart away. But those limitations aside, he should never have plopped his cart in that handicapped spot or any regular spot for that matter. There were other areas nearby that he could’ve placed it out of the way of traffic even without having to walk the 3 extra spots to the cart corral.
What makes this story better is that the moment, I mean the exact moment my daughter wheeled that cart away, a woman in a mini-van with a handicap placard pulled around the corner. Without hesitation and without having to navigate around anything, she pulled safely into the handicap spot right in front of us.
The kids’ faces were priceless.
“MOM!” they squealed. “Did you see that?!”
“I sure did,” I said.
My smile was huge.
So were theirs.
The man’s? Not so much.
“Sorry not sorry, buddy,” I thought. Kindness matters. Manners matter. So does keeping your grocery cart out of handicap spots.
Since that parking lot incident, I’ve seen two other people abuse handicap spaces. I’ve been able to respond to one of them directly. Nicely, of course, because the last thing I want is a parking lot altercation with someone who doesn’t respect the law or the people it protects. That’s happened before, and things got ugly quickly. But if I don’t speak up, drivers will think that they are entitled to use handicap spots even when they are not supposed to.
My children have been with me when I’ve called someone out face-to-face. “You know you need a placard to park there, right?” I’ll say. Fumbling for an excuse, a driver will usually respond with a glib, “It was just for a minute!” or, “There are no other parking spots, so I had to take this one!” Unwilling to apologize because they see no wrong in their actions, my children are just as irked as I am when they hear those responses. If no one is at the car, the kids ask, “Mom, they are not being kind to Ronan. Take a picture of the car in that spot. Make sure the sign is in it, too.” When I can and when I know that someone will follow up with the driver, I do snap a photo. I note the license plate, what time it is, and where we are. Then, I send the picture so that an authority figure can address the issue. I know that it can be a lost cause to spend energy on nabbing these kind of people, but it’s important for my kids to know that positive steps can be taken to preserve Ronan’s rights.
I’d give anything for Ronan to not have to use the placard anymore. With how much he has slowed down, though, having it has been a godsend. We’re out in our community and surrounding communities quite a bit during the week. To school, to therapy, to sports events, and to social outings – we’re in and out of the car all of the time! When we get to our destination, I scope out the closest entrance and then begin to look for a parking spot. If it’s open, I park in the handicapped spot. That way, Ronan can get to his destination quicker. He can conserve more of his energy for whatever it is he will need to do inside that destination also. I am grateful for that. So are his siblings. They’re even more grateful when other drivers park in their designated spots and not in ones their brother needs.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.