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Hidden in Plain Sight: Disability Crime Wave

22 January 2014 7,731 views 11 Comments

by Jen Ehrlich

It’s not uncommon on Stanford’s campus—a well-known hotbed of criminal activity—for a student to be stopped by an officer of the law. Our offenses range from the horrific, such as biking without a proper light, to the demonic, such as walking while holding a red plastic cup that might contain evil alcohol.

So you will not be surprised to hear that last Thursday I found myself face to face with a large, looming man in a Stanford police uniform. What might surprise you is my offense: parking my car (with my official blue State of California disability placard hanging from the rear view mirror) in a disability space.

“I need to see your paperwork, ma’am” the officer demanded in a harsh tone that implied he had caught me red-handed engaging in some terrible crime and would soon be hauling me away.

“Umm, my placard is hanging where it’s supposed to, is there a problem?” I asked, my fear of being in trouble with authority figures rising up ominously in my chest.

“You need to show me the form you got from the DMV proving that this is in fact your disability placard. We have people using their aunt’s or grandma’s placards,” he growled, his voice moving from confident and cocky to angry at being questioned by a mere student.

The lunacy here is that I have a serious disability. Since middle school I have lived with an autonomic nervous system disorder called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS).

To make a long story short, the autonomic nervous system controls the parts of your body that should function automatically. Your heart’s pumping of blood, your veins’ transportation of that blood, your intestines’ digesting of food, your endocrine system’s regulation of body temperature, your pupils’ dilation and contraction—all of these require proper nervous system functioning, and mine doesn’t function properly. In fact, I have massive levels of norepinephrine—the “fight or flight” chemical—in my brain at all times.  From the moment I wake up to the second I go to sleep, my body is reacting as if a tiger were trying to eat me. Understandably, this causes some unpleasant complications, particularly when I’m actually stressed or tired. And I sometimes have to skip going to a movie or the mall because there are no parking spots close enough for me to walk from.

So back to me and Mr. Law and Order.

It’s true that I don’t “look sick”: he couldn’t see my undersized heart attempting to pump blood to my head, which was attempting to split itself into two; he couldn’t see the dizziness that was threatening to push me to the ground; and he couldn’t feel the intense nausea that made vomiting on his well-shined shoes a distinct possibility.

But he could see my official placard. He could see the air cast on my right ankle, the two bandages on my left knee, and the distinct limp that comes from attempting to strengthen your heart and eliminate some norepinephrine through two daily hours of cardiac exercise with muscles that lack proper strength or adequate blood flow. He could see my intensely neon red cheeks and the deep purple bags perched under my eyes. And he could see that, unlike every normal Stanford student, I hadn’t biked across campus to class but rather ventured into the chaos that is parking at the Oval.

I didn’t know of any paperwork requirement.  In my home state of New Hampshire the laws are so few that being ignorant of one is almost impossible, though that’s not true in California. And when I answered that I was unsure if I had any such paperwork with me, I only confirmed the officer’s growing certainty of my guilt.

“There is a $375 fine for not having the paperwork!” he almost shouted at me.

“But the placard is mine, you can look it up!” I pled, nearly hysterical from exhaustion, confusion and fear—I don’t have $375 to spare!

“Give me your ID. I need to run it against the system.”

I slumped against the car, exhausted, while he called someone. Ten minutes later, he returned.

“Well, the placard and the ID match,” he reported, his disappointment clear. I was too relieved and afraid to utter aloud my first thought, which was “No shit, Sherlock!”

He went on to say, “I should still give you a ticket for the full amount because you’re required to have the paperwork on you at all times.” Although pleading ignorance doesn’t usually save Stanford students, this time it worked: the officer walked away, head down and obviously crestfallen at not having made the big bust of the little blond girl.

Now, the point of this post isn’t to complain about the overzealousness of Stanford’s police in issuing citations, although one could do that, but rather to introduce myself.

I am Jen Ehrlich, a sophomore and a student with what might be called a “hidden disability” or an “invisible illness.” Sitting in class next to me or seeing me at CoHo, you couldn’t guess that there’s anything “wrong” with me. Even my closest friends are occasionally flabbergasted by how I can “look so good” and yet cancel Friday night’s plans for dinner and a movie in favor of a quick trip to the ER.

It might seem rare to look normal and yet be seriously ill, but it isn’t.  There are many students on campus with hidden disabilities, ranging from POTs to ADHD to Lupus to Lyme disease.

POTS is not who I am; it does not define me. But it is present in my thoughts and physical sensations every day. There isn’t a moment when one part of my mind isn’t monitoring the temperature of the room or the intensity of the sun or the amount of energy I have used up so far today. There isn’t one activity in my life that POTS doesn’t affect: where I live, what I eat, and even how I spend my Friday nights. But I am here. I am a Stanford student and I am determined to make the most of this amazing university.

In this column, I will discuss POTS and how it affects me in tragic, comic, and simply ridiculous ways. Perhaps more importantly, I will work to illuminate a way of life that is often hidden on this campus—that of persons who are both patients and students, underdogs and overachievers, illness and success.

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  • Clara

    Nice piece! Thanks for sharing your story :) I’m sorry you had to go through that ordeal with the cop and I can’t wait to read what you write next. I think your topic of invisible disabilities/illnesses is fascinating and I’m glad you are breaking the silence on this important topic. It’s inspirational to see someone work so hard and not give up hope :)

  • Chas

    Your everyday activities sound like running a marathon, barefoot, without water!
    You are so brave for reaching out in this way, and I can see how you’ll be helping many others with less fortitude to do the same! Bravo!

  • Charlotte

    Awesome piece!

  • http://pambernard.com Pam

    Way to go, Jen! Love you approach, as always. Such important work you are doing on behalf of all disabled people–all people, in fact. Pam

  • Janet Langlois Balch

    Wonderful Jen! You are indeed the ambassador for so many with “hidden” disabilities. Something most people are unaware of. Keep up the good work and keep up the excellent writing!

  • Becky

    Love your humor and style of writing. That was a perfect example, and I was feeling for you and relating to you at the same time. Can’t wait to read more!

  • Rob C

    California is truly a different animal on many fronts. Great piece which truly makes you think about priorities, as well as motive. Thank you for sharing.

  • Claire

    That is so frustrating, Jen! Way to handle it with grace. I am also excited to read more from your blog. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Marisa

    Jen, you are a superhuman! It takes so much courage to do what you do — from literally making it through from sunrise to sunset of each day with your gorgeous smile still bright, to moreover sharing your stories with the world. We are so lucky to be able to read these…keep taking care of yourself so you can keep writing pieces that bring tears to my eyes.