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DON'T BE TOO QUICK TO THINK THAT YOUNG-LOOKING DRIVER DOESN'T NEED A 'DISABLED' SPOT

I've always thought of Carol as the quintessential modern woman. She is a 53-year-old marketing executive who travels extensively, distinguishes among the finest European wines and sports the most up-to-the-minute fashion.

No one looks at her and thinks "disabled." That is part of the reason she recently became the victim of an increasingly common form of harassment.

Carol was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1995. Months later, she applied for a New York State Disabled Parking Permit. Several months after major surgery, she was continuing to receive IV chemotherapy at local hospitals and was routinely experiencing nausea and vomiting, extreme hair loss and pernicious fatigue.

When she applied for the permit, her intentions were to be able to park closer to entrances at doctors' offices and hospitals as well as in designated spaces for the disabled at shopping malls, stores and churches.

Like countless others with disabilities, she never expected to face any discrimination or harassment. But one day, as she pulled into a Wegmans parking spot designated for the handicapped, an older man rudely challenged her right to be there. The incident was embarrassing -- and infuriating.

Not every disability is easily visible or recognizable to the casual observer. Frequently, disabled people using their permits legally and justifiably are forced to endure cold stares or verbal abuse.

One young woman I know drove to a Tops superstore after her every-other-day appointment at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Filling her prescription and picking up pita bread and orange juice were the only items on her to-do list. But she was forced to endure the cruel and insensitive screams of an older driver. "Where's your wheelchair?" was his ignorant cry.

Like many others, this young woman occasionally parks in the disabled spots to save steps. The use of a disabled permit has facilitated her goal to be able to live without extraordinary assistance.

Two years ago I was appointed to the Mayor's Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities. Currently, I am the chairman of the subcommittee on parking.

All too frequently, we hear ideas for changing the parking rules that would add up to serious discrimination against a protected class of American citizens.

Take a commonly heard idea: putting an individual's picture on a disabled tag. No other individual needs a photo ID to park in the United States. Why should those with disabilities need one?

Further, what purpose would be served? Couldn't rapists, muggers and other criminals be waiting for a pictorially identified pregnant woman or seriously ill elderly person who is legally parked in a designated spot?

Another "politically correct" idea is the numbering of tags according to some degree of disability. Well, does toxemia in pregnancy get a 10? Will cancers be 8? AIDS, a 6?

The most important element of a person's application for a disabled parking permit is the portion filled out by the medical doctor. All information regarding the person's diagnosis is privileged and totally confidential. Issuing agents keep all applications locked securely. If government has already protected civil rights, guaranteeing that medical information not be a water-cooler topic, then why permit numbering of tags? Confidential means confidential.

Also, many seem to be mistakenly concerned that people using disabled permits are violating laws, especially in downtown Buffalo. Several years ago the Common Council unanimously voted to allow free parking at meters for those with valid disabled permits. Some critics point to the loss of meter revenue to the city. The nickels and dimes may add up, but certainly no one can claim that the city's deficit is a result of a disabled person not leaving work to negotiate the cold and icy Buffalo streets to add coinage. No doubt people with disabilities would gladly exchange their tags for a return to better health.

But let's return to Carol's humiliation outside Wegmans. Once she regained her composure, she went into the store to search for the man who had harassed her. She found him sitting at the blood-pressure machine. Who laughed last? Probably Carol, but only after she castigated him while his arm was constricted by electronic pressure.

After she pointed out his rudeness, she left him -- now disabled with shock -- and drove away from her parking spot to have a great day.

MADONNA PRIORE is vice president of Niagara Gas Transmission and lives in Buffalo.

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