It is with great pleasure that I once again introduce you to my friend, Corrine Hinton. Corrine is a military spouse in addition to a professor, scholar, mother, daughter, sister, and friend…she wears many “hats.”
She shares this piece about the invisible wounds that Veterans may have and how there can be difficulty for some in understanding those invisible wounds. I’m pleased to share this heartfelt essay with you all.
Many thanks to Corrine, and her husband, Ty, for sharing this with us. <3
Invisible Does Not Mean In Violation
Corrine E. Hinton, PhD
Assistant Professor of English, Texas A&M University-Texarkana
2017 Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow (Texas)
After nearly twenty years in the Marine Corps infantry, my husband Tyron had sustained physical and psychological injuries that he knew would plague him for the remainder of his life. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from three combat tours, a blast-induced Traumatic Brain Injury from a rocket-propelled grenade during enemy engagement in Afghanistan, and a host of physical injuries to his back, leg, shoulder, and knee made him a little worse for the wear. Initially, we didn’t expect any long-term implications of the injuries beyond what we had already grown accustomed to in our years as a couple: muscle and joint pain, erratic sleeping patterns, difficulty multi-tasking, bouts of rage, mood swings, and periods of isolation we would call “sheltering in place.” The effects from his TBI, however, eventually caught up with him, diminishing his cognitive abilities, decision making, impulse control, auditory processing, and short term memory.
During his bad days, Ty also deals with chronic pain in his lower back and sciatic nerve caused by a collapsing nerve column. Every six weeks, he receives a two-set series of spinal injections that (after nearly a year of trying unsuccessful approaches) alleviate much of the pain and inflammation that impair him physically. During the weeks in between shot series, the increase in his pain is evident as are changes to his daily functionality. During those weeks, Ty can’t play with our three year-old son on the floor or bend over to pick up his toys, help me carry groceries, take out the trash, do work around the house, or retrieve pots and pans from the lower cabinets in the kitchen. During those weeks, Ty uses a cane to assist him with getting in and out of bed, in and out of the car, or up and down stairs. On those days, no one throws Ty the side-eye for parking in a handicapped spot when he lumbers out of his truck to go grocery shopping with me. On the bad days, no one stops to crane her neck to verify our license plate says “permanently disabled.”
During the not-as-bad days, when his pain is managed, Tyron fights with his mental health. On those days, he’s trying not to get angry for putting the milk in the pantry or his phone in the refrigerator, trying not to get exasperated for having the same conversation with me three times about our dinner plans or what night I teach late (it’s Monday, babe, it’s Monday). On those days, a trip to the store is often a different experience. On those days, his struggles are internal and invisible to others save for his occasional public displays of road rage (inept drivers are one of his PTSD triggers). On those days, he faces a barrage of public shaming – obvious and subtle – about taking a disabled parking spot. He endures the screwed faces of people who, after looking him up and down to verify he’s “not disabled,” shake their heads and mutter under their breath. He tempers his desire to respond when someone lingers a little too long at the rear of our vehicle to read our license plate. The more brazen folks directly accuse him of “taking spaces away from people who really need them” or – worse – asking him if he’s disabled because they don’t see a hangtag (unnecessary when you have a permanent plate) or because he looks too young to have anything wrong with him. For him, these folks cause more harm than good in just a few moments of passing: shaming him into feeling unworthy as a disabled veteran or angering him with their audacity, lack of sensitivity, and judgment.
The stigma concerning those with invisible injuries – those not immediately or at all evident in the physical appearance of the person – plagues many veterans. For some members of the public, disabled tags or plates no longer grant a veteran the right to park in a disabled parking stall. Instead, he or she must be disabled enough or a certain kind of disabled. I shall henceforth refer to these people as the Defenders, because most of them believe they are defending the rights of the “truly disabled” by admonishing, shaming, embarrassing, or accosting those whom they believe are not worthy of the privilege. The Defenders, deliberately or not, are creating within our society a tiered system for how we comprehend individuals with disabilities, where one person can be more or less disabled than another or where the presence of a disability (those we can see or think we can see) supersedes invisible disabilities. Slight hitch in your gait? You’re good. Wobble in your step? You’re good. Cast, boot, sling, brace, cane, walker, wheelchair, or mobility scooter? Yep – you count. Visibly ailed or infirmed? No judgment here. The Defenders believe they are doing right by helping the state root out those who seek to take advantage of the system and, subsequently, take advantage of the people who “really need it.” If you see something, say something and all that.
Here are just a few other examples of the Defenders’ work.
One story making its way around the internet is from an Army veteran who had a noteworthy experience in Austin, Texas. The veteran, known only by his Reddit.com user ID, Molochwalker28, posted a picture of the note he received on his car along with his response. The Defender in question tells the veteran (paralyzed from the knee down due to combat injuries) that he doesn’t “look handicapped,” an accusation to which the veteran responds: “I would love to hear what your idea of a handicapped person ‘looks’ like.”
We would like to believe that only some Defenders are so unenlightened that they would accuse someone of not “looking” disabled. Wrong. After speaking with some fellow veteran caregivers about their experiences, I heard from Oklahoma caregiver (and a disabled veteran himself), Joseph Kavanagh. Joseph’s wife, Jerrie, is a veteran rated 100% disabled due to Traumatic Brain Injury and breathing difficulties. One day, Joseph arrived to pick Jennie up from the college where she had been taking a class. He parked in a disabled parking stall (valid permit and all) and proceeded to meet his wife when an administrative assistant at the college confronted him. She informed Joseph that the disabled parking spots were for people with “real disabilities” and that he, in fact, did not “look” disabled. Joseph and his wife responded by filing a formal complaint with the college.
And yet, the problem is not contained to the opinions of the general public. Sometimes, even those responsible for enforcing the very laws that protect disabled veterans’ rights to park in disabled parking stalls offer criticism because of the “non-appearance” of a disability. In Florida, Army veteran Isiah James recorded his confrontation with a police officer on his phone, as the officer berated him for using handicapped parking in front of a Walgreen’s. “Does that make you any better than a citizen or an old lady in a wheelchair that really needs the place? I’m just saying, you’re walking,” the police officer says. By their duty to protect citizens and enforce the laws of their respective states, police officers are Defenders. And yet, this particular officer sees fit to assert his individual (and subjective interpretation) of what “counts” as disabled against a veteran who has met the qualifying criteria established by the very state the officer serves.
Seeing is not always believing. When an individual exits a vehicle from a disabled parking spot, we have no idea the individual’s disability, disease, disorder, illness, or injury and, quite frankly, it’s none of our business. The responsibility rests in the state whose procedures determine the distribution of placards and plates. Yes, there are some who take advantage of loopholes in those systems, those who do not have the legal right to occupy disabled parking spaces. However, our best interest does not lie in policing parking spaces or accosting those whose conditions lie beyond a crutch or a cane or a wheelchair. Our best interest resides in challenging ourselves, our friends, neighbors, and community members to look beyond disability as an embodied presence – something that we must see to believe. And at the very least, if you simply cannot agree that those with invisible disabilities or injuries should have the right to disabled parking, then at least recognize that the law disagrees with you.