Melissa Stockwell is sending a powerful message about disabilities.
On Tuesday, the three-time Paralympian shared a story on Instagram about shutting down a stranger who questioned her use of a handicapped parking spot. The day before, the 41-year-old athlete said she was getting into her car when an older man said, “Well, you sure don’t look handicapped.”
“It was cold, I was wearing pants and this has happened before but it still irritates me,” Stockwell recalled. “I quickly responded with ‘I have a prosthetic leg, would you like to see it?’ He turned around and waved an apology to when I yelled out ‘And you should stop judging people!’ “
Stockwell was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army when she lost her leg in a Baghdad roadside bomb in 2004. She has been living with a prosthetic leg since the accident and went on to compete in three Paralympic Games — winning a paratriathlon bronze medal for the U.S. at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
“Do I always need to park in a handicapped spot? No. But when I’m carrying a kid, or a lot of groceries, or it’s icy or snowy out or my leg just plain hurts, it sure is nice,” the mom of two continued. “Plus I feel like I’ve earned the right to park there on any day I choose.”
“Stop the judging. You never know what someone else is going through whether you can physically see a disability or not,” Stockwell stressed. “Do people sometimes abuse the handicapped spot? Sure. But join me in choosing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Kindness matters.”
After sharing the post, many of her followers thanked her for speaking up about disabilities that might not always be visible.
The Paralympian responded to many comments, noting that though she wants people to see her as “so much more than someone with one leg,” it gets frustrating when people are judgmental.
Over the years, Stockwell has made it a goal for herself to help people who live with disabilities, telling PEOPLE earlier this year about her non-profit, Dare2Tri, which provides support, adaptive equipment, training and coaching to get people with disabilities involved in triathlons like she has.
“The first thing people say is, ‘How can I do a triathlon? I’m in a wheelchair?’ ” she explained in August. “But we provide all the resources for them. And when they finish, you can see the transformation, the sense of self-worth.”
In addition to her work with Dare2Tri and her Paralympic training, Stockwell and her husband, Brian Tolsma, who are both prosthetists, own an orthotics and prosthetics business in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The couple share son Dallas, 6, and daughter Millie, 4.