Capably disabled

Marie Koltchak pauses on Carbon River Road, along the hem of Mount Rainier in June. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Ferrari. 

By Marie Koltchak, Guest Contributor 

The moment finally came, the one I dreaded, the one where someone saw me taking my bike off my bike rack, parked in a handicapped spot, and assumed I was faking to reap special benefits.

“That's disabled parking,” a dry stick of a man whined, keeping the world safe from miscreants one comment at a time. “I know,” I answered, although I wish I had said, “you would make a lousy detective.” 

From time to time stories of people scamming handicapped parking privileges make the news. Law enforcement checks permit numbers against records, and levy hefty fines. 

Born with a congenital spinal defect, but looking and feeling more or less able-bodied until a few years ago, age and mileage have conspired to make me what I think of as ably-disabled. 

Disabled enough to have lost my ability to walk or stand without provoking nerve compression, but able enough to ride a bike. Go figure. It has to do with shifting the load off lower lumbar vertebrae.

My bike, unbeknownst to most people, serves as an assistive device. I ride, but also use the bike as a rolling cane — a fancy two-wheeled walker.

Understandably you might assume I'm a chiseler, a disabled person surely couldn't handle a bike right? And cycling togs, looking like fluorescent super-suits, further confuse things.

I'd lay money down that a day in my shoes would have you grasping for relief in any form. There is nothing like pain to make you appreciate the absence of it. Anyone who's felt a pinched nerve knows what I mean — those who haven’t, good for you. Really. 

The pain has had me mulling over the phrase, “put the fear of God in you” and wondering if “fear of Satan” might be more on point.

I'm aware of the irony: Like the guy who gets hit by a car and "only" breaks a limb, I am lucky. Although facing uncertainty about my ability to walk, I have this grace, this out, this pass. 

Lest I sound morose, and to offer perspective: an enormous number of people are trying to live with chronic pain and I take cold comfort there. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined.”

So my message is this: Not all disabilities are obvious or visible — don't make me whip out my x-rays. If someone needs a spot more than me, I'll give it up — to my way of thinking, having more mobility than someone else confers responsibility. 

In the meantime, I hope strangers will keep their "insights" to themselves.

Marie Koltchak lives on Vashon and commutes to the South Lake Union district daily using a car, the King County Water Taxi and a bicycle. She thinks chronic pain can make you squirrelly. 

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