Every time Nicole Sparks pulls into an accessible parking spot, her heart starts racing and she asks herself, "Who's going to yell at me today?"
It was no different last Saturday when Sparks, 28, parked her vehicle and started making her way into a pharmacy. The Cole Harbour, N.S., woman is missing her left arm and wears a prosthetic.
"The lady in the car next to me rolled down her window and started making very derogatory comments, saying that I did not look like I was disabled so I should not be in that spot," Sparks told CBC Radio's Mainstreet this week.
About a year ago, Sparks said she asked her doctor for an accessible parking pass because she'd developed carpal tunnel in her right hand, which makes it painful and difficult to carry grocery bags or push a cart.
Sparks said she tried to explain that to the woman, but the stranger didn't listen.
"She cut me off," said Sparks. "She started making very rude comments about my disability. She was swearing at me, and it escalated quite quickly to the point where I nearly had a panic attack. I was shaking. I couldn't get my words out."
It was not the first time the mother of two faced this kind of harassment. As the provincial government moves to make Nova Scotia barrier-free by 2030, Sparks said it's time to change accessible parking permits and spots to better reflect invisible disabilities.
"They need to repaint these spots and remove the wheelchair and put a more inclusive symbol because that [the wheelchair] kind of creates the idea that it's a visible disability spot, and it's not. It's an accessible spot," she said.
A spokesperson for Nova Scotia's Department of Transportation said while the Motor Vehicle Act defines disability more broadly, the blue wheelchair symbol is an "international symbol of access and is universally applied worldwide."
"Any change to the symbol would have to be considered in this broader context," wrote Andrea Frydl.
People share similar stories
On Saturday, Sparks said she even removed her prosthetic arm to show the woman in the car.
"I was desperate to get them to stop to the point where I removed my own medical equipment off of my body to try and justify why I was in that spot, and that's just not fair," she said.
Sparks said the encounter was the worst she's experienced, but similar incidents happen at least once a week. Sometimes people yell and swear at her. Other times, they look in her car windows to see if she has an accessible parking pass.
"I also have people, you can see them looking up and down and looking at me closely, trying to find something that's wrong with me," she said.
Sparks posted about her most recent experience on Facebook, and heard from many other people with disabilities who face the same treatment when they park in an accessible spot.
"It's clearly a bigger problem than I would have ever imagined," she said.
Sparks hopes sharing her story shows Nova Scotians that not all disabilities look the same.
"There are many disabilities that are invisible, so it's not right to attack people because they're young and healthy," she said.
"My car is clearly marked as accessible so people should respect that and leave me alone, but unfortunately they don't."
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