This article has been edited to reflect readers’ suggestions – please see the comments for more information.

Once the Navigator and I were driving into a parking lot behind a car with a license plate with the international symbol of accessibility or ISA on it. My son was confused.

 “How can someone drive if they need a wheelchair?” he asked.

I explained to him that there might be other reasons that someone would need an ISA license plate, such as having a disease which made it hard to walk, or a condition that made them tire easily, so that it was beneficial for them to be able to park closer to the entrance.

While it was a great opportunity to talk with my son about invisible disabilities, it was also revealing of the very literal way that he interpreted the symbol.

And he was not alone.

From Autism Peeps get in line, but don’t expect to wait, used with permission.

Type the word “disability” in Google images and up pops many, many images of people in wheelchairs.

There are few if no pictures of people with hidden disabilities, such as the student who had a ISA placard while she was receiving radiation treatments, or the mom whose had a placard for her terminally ill son.

In the United States, each state sets the standards for receiving a placard or license plate, and the standards generally include the following disabilities:

  • Don’t have full use of one or both arms.
  • Can’t walk a set number of feet without stopping to rest. Some states set this number as low as 50; others, as high as 200.
  • Can’t walk without using a cane, crutch, brace, prosthetic device, wheelchair, or the assistance of another person.
  • Have a Class III or Class IV cardiac condition, as set by the American Heart Association.
  • Must have portable oxygen to walk.
  • Have a visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with correcting lenses.
  • Have a visual acuity of 20/200 but with a limited field of vision in which the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle of 20 degrees or less.

Some of these would not be obvious to the casual observer because they are hidden disabilities and are not literally represented by the little wheelchair symbol.

Recently, Great Britain announced plans to extend its version of the placard, the “blue badge,” to cover invisible disabilities including autism because

Autistic people can suffer anxiety from not being able to park in a predictable place close to their destination, and some can “experience too much information” from the environment around them on public transport

This thoughtful and compassionate approach to issuing placards and license plates could very easily be adopted by states (if they have not been already).

It is time to lose the literal interpretation of the little wheelchair, and become aware that some disabilities are invisible.

Click here to read another perspective on this symbol. Thanks to Thomas at Aspiblog for sharing this link.

For those concerned about disabled parking fraud (which does happen), report it to your state’s department of motor vehicles, which will know better than the casual observer if the placard was issued for an invisible disability.