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Dear Ann Landers: I have suffered from osteoarthritis in both knees since I was in my early 20s. I have had nine surgeries and will probably have more. I wear long dresses and pants to cover the many scars. My condition is lifelong and chronic, and I have learned to tolerate an extreme amount of pain. I can walk only short distances and manage OK if I am extremely careful.

Here's the problem, Ann: I am 31 years old and am reasonably attractive. From looking at me, no one would guess that I am handicapped. I have a handicapped sticker on my car, which gives me special parking privileges. You would not believe the snide remarks and dirty looks I get from people who think I am taking up a handicapped space that I am not entitled to. Several observers have yelled at me and scratched the finish on my car with their keys.

I'm sure these people consider themselves "good Samaritans," but they are not. I have been reduced to tears by their insensitivity and cruelty. They cannot possibly know my physical condition. Not everyone who is handicapped requires a wheelchair or an oxygen tank. Many handicaps are not visible, but that doesn't make it open season on us.

I know you have mentioned this problem in your column before, Ann, but I hope you will do it again. I am tired of being humiliated by self-righteous people who ought to know better. Maybe if you tell them one more time, Ann, it will sink in.

-- Barely Making It in Virginia
Dear Barely Making It: The outrage you feel is justified. This is a subject that needs to be revisited periodically. I would rather be conned 10 times than ignore the needs of one handicapped person.

Individuals with heart trouble, lung disease or advanced osteoarthritis are as handicapped as the person on crutches. I hope your letter will help people be more compassionate. But for the grace of God, folks, it could be you.

Bad marriage hurts kids

Dear Ann Landers: My heart broke when I read the letter from "Undecided in Virginia." He was in a loveless marriage but was concerned about divorcing his wife because they had a young child together.

I, too, lived in a tense, loveless marriage for years. We didn't argue, but there wasn't much communication. We stayed together for the sake of our four children. Sadly, it is our children who have suffered the most. They are all in their 40s now and incapable of forming decent, lasting relationships. They have no idea what a good marriage is like because they never saw one.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have pursued a suitable, loving partner for myself and given my children a better example of what a good marriage is like.

-- A Sad Dad in Michigan
Dear Sad Dad: Please stop blaming yourself. You did what you thought was best for your children. Hindsight is always 2 0/2 0. In many instances, children are better off when the parents stay together, provided they can be civil to each other and not allow their bitterness to cause friction and tension in the home.

A couple who marries today has a 50-50 chance of making it. Some experts say it is because more women are financially independent and no longer have to stay in bad relationships. I say, if there is physical violence, get out. (Sometimes the woman is the violent party.) Often there is alcoholism or drug abuse. Alcoholics Anonymous can be a godsend. If the boozer refuses to join, say to him or her, "Don't slam the door on your way out."

Problems? Dump on Ann. Write her at The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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