First posted: Monday, March 21, 2016
In the mere minutes between when Amber Gillett pulled into an accessible parking spot in front of a Clyde Avenue shop and when she walked back to her Volkswagen Golf, a stranger made an assumption about her.
“Stupidity is not a disability!” read the large sticker someone plastered across her windshield recently, despite the accessible parking permit clipped to the visor. “Park elsewhere.”
Gillett, who says she was born with Osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly known as brittle bone disease, couldn’t scrape it off her car.
“I was between hurt and completely furious,” she said. “I use a handicap pass. Just because I have an invisible condition doesn’t mean you can degrade me.”
The 22-year-old has, at times, used a cane, a walker and a wheelchair, and needs to park close to her destination because she can’t walk long distances. A simple slip and fall could leave her with yet more broken bones.
Yet she’s found nasty notes on her windshield before.
“I’d rather have someone ask me than leave a threat,” she said. “I know they have good intentions; they’re just being a jerk about it.”
Earlier this year, the Ontario government announced it was introducing accessible parking permits with security features and requiring applicants to prove their identity. It’s a bid to crack down on misuse and make sure spots are there for people who need them, although almost 700,000 existing permits remain valid.
But Dr. Alexis Shotwell, who studies disability issues at Carleton University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, said she more often hears people with the passes complain they were hassled for using them than that someone without a disability was misusing them.
“I’ve heard anecdotally that there are quite a lot of people who are harassed using disabled parking passes with invisible disabilities, so I think it’s actually quite a widespread problem,” she said.
She blames ignorance of conditions such as fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis that may not be as obvious as a cane or wheelchair, but says feeling watched and judged causes real scars.
“Studies and also qualitative data show that feeling surveilled is actually a part of what’s hard about having a disability sometimes more so than whatever physical experiences you’re having,” Shotwell said.
“It’s actually really, really harmful, especially if it means that someone who lives with a disability decides not to use their legitimate access to accommodation in order to avoid being judged.
“So we should really notice that the kind of judgment that happens, even when it’s coming from a place of wanting to protect that spot for other disabled people, actually might be profoundly harmful to the person who just needs that accommodation.”