"You need to think twice before judging someone," the Plainfield mom said. " You have no idea what they've been through."
PLAINFIELD, IL — From all outward appearances, Michele Clarke, 39, looks young and healthy. But 16 years ago, the Plainfield mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Since then she has had to battle back from flare-ups that have at times left her using a cane or a wheelchair, and even hospitalized for weeks at a time.
"Then there's times when I'm able to go to the gym and build up my strength," she told Patch.
Like many who suffer from "invisible diseases," Clarke said that for many years she was hesitant about using the handicapped placard for fear of being judged.
"It almost gets to the point where I'm afraid to use it," she said, "just because I'm not in a walker or I'm not using a cane ... I may look good on the outside, but on the inside I'm struggling."
Her fears came true on Monday, Clarke said, when she took her 12-year-old daughter to a doctor's office on 127th Street in Plainfield. As she was getting into the car, her daughter handed her a note that had been left on the passenger side windshield.
Clarke said she initially thought she might have been ticketed for forgetting to put her placard in the window, and checked to make sure the placard was there. When she unfolded the piece of paper and began to read, Clarke burst into tears.
"You inconsiderate bitch," a stranger had written. "Parking in a handicap spot when you and your little daughter aren't handicapped. Is the placard for someone else in your family? It certainly isn't for either of the two of you. People who are are truly handicapped need these spots — not you. You are setting a very poor example for your daughter!"
Clarke said her daughter consoled her, telling her it was OK.
"I opened (the note) up and I just had tears rolling down my face after the first nasty words," Clarke said. "I could tell she was hurt for me."
Clarke said she debated about sharing the note on social media, but decided to speak out.
"People do have these invisible diseases, and you get this judgement because you're not using a walker or in a wheelchair," she said. "How do you educate people out there about not judging?"
She said her post was shared on the Facebook pages of two local moms groups, which generated hundreds of comments from others who have experienced similar judgment. Clarke said reading those stories made her feel less alone.
"That was good for me to hear," she said.
Clarke said she wishes the person who left the note would have taken the time to talk to her instead of waiting for her to go inside and leaving an angry message.
"Don't leave a nasty note," she said. "Shame on you for leaving something like that knowing I was with my daughter, who had to see me cry."
Judgement against those with chronic disease — especially for young people who are ill — is so prevalent that the Invisible Disabilities Association is dedicated to combating it. The association defines an invisible disability as "a physical, mental or neurological condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities that is invisible to the onlooker."
"Unfortunately," a statement from the association explains, "the very fact that these symptoms are invisible can lead to misunderstandings, false perceptions and judgments."
Last week in Kentucky, a college student undergoing radiation for a brain tumor told CBS News she came out of school to find her car vandalized. An unkind note similar to the one Clarke got was left on it. The note bore a logo that read, "Not really (handicapped parking symbol) just lazy."
Clarke said she said she hopes the person who left the note sees her story.
"I'm not looking for an apology," she said. "But you need to think twice before judging someone ... You don't know what they have. You have no idea what they've been through — who are we to say, 'They look fine, they shouldn't be parking in a handicapped spot?'"
Image courtesy of Michele Clarke