'Invisible' disabled cop parking flak

Last updated 05:00 16/02/2014
Disabled car park
Fairfax NZ
FAIR GO: Disabled car parks allow those with limited mobility to access their community.

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The international symbol of access depicts a person in a wheelchair.

When it comes to carparks, some people take that symbol a little too literally, with genuinely disabled users often subject to abuse for using carparks to which they're entitled.

Stories of able-bodied people "stealing" parks reserved for the disabled are all too common, with thousands of tickets issued every year. But there's a sad flipside for those who carry "invisible injuries".

Last week, an Auckland mother told media she was abused and insulted by strangers for using mobility parks because her brain-damaged son did not look disabled. Disability advocates say the public's misperception of disabilities and related accessibility issues is a common problem.

There is more to being disabled than riding on wheels.

One in five people in New Zealand report having a long-term impairment. There are more than 100,000 current permits in New Zealand, issued by support group CCS Disability Action. Chief executive David Matthews says another 5000 are given out every year.

"We're all living longer," he says. "More of us will have mobility issues at some stage in our lives. This is a scheme which all of us might need to use at some stage in the future, so we need to protect it and honour it."

To qualify for mobility carpark use, a person must have "a medical condition or disability" that means they are:

- unable to walk

- restricted from walking distances

- in need of physical contact or close supervision to get around safely.

Medical practitioners grant the permits for general mobility issues - which range from amputations to a broken ankle - as well as for chronic illnesses, brain injuries, and intellectual disabilities.

For the able-bodied person dashing to the post office, supermarket, bank, cafe, the sight of an empty mobility park, oh so close to the entrance . . . (and did I mention it was raining?) is tempting, to say the least.

"Parking does cause anxieties and issues for people. Maybe that's when people do things they wouldn't otherwise," Matthews says.

According to city councils, the most common excuses include "just popping in" and "there were no other parks available".

Matthews says the aim of having these parks is to ensure people are able to access their community. "It's about their right to do that, not some special privilege they've been given.

"It's the Kiwi idea of having a fair go. It's about giving people with mobility issues a fair go in life. So they can get to where they need to go with as little challenge as possible."

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National director of rehabilitation at ABI, Tony Young, says people with brain injuries, who look physically able, require mobility parks for "physical and cognitive fatigue".

"The world's an incredibly busy place. A lot of people don't have time to slow down and help.

"Going to the supermarket would be [a patient's] task for the day. There would be an advantage in finding a park that is close and handy because they're dealing with multiple other factors that they have to overcome to perform tasks that others would take for granted."

Speech language therapist at ABI Maegan van Solkema says "invisible injuries" can lead to incorrect assumptions about a person's disability status, and in turn this can make it harder for them to reintegrate back into the community.

Accessing public facilities can be an important part of a patient's rehabilitation.

Clinical psychologist Lucy Devlin says "For a lot of our [brain injury] clients, when they come in, they're not really sure what they're going to be able to do in terms of daily tasks. Once we start taking them out into the community again we often see that their mood does lift. And once we know that we can set up support for them to do tasks, it does have a really good impact on their wellbeing."

Although vigilantes may have good intentions when they challenge someone using a mobility park, Matthews says if you cannot see a permit, it is best to contact CCS or, if the park is off-street, then the landowners, rather than confront the person directly.

However, he acknowledges the benefit of members of the public keeping tabs on these prized spaces.

"Are there enough parks? Our answer is that there are never enough. The more cars are out there, the more pressure on existing spaces. We are hoping that councils are being proactive in looking at increasing the number of mobility spaces along with their general increase for parking in towns and cities."

Disability rights commissioner Paul Gibson agrees, and says accessibility in public places is key to allowing people with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life.

"New Zealand's ageing population means more and more people will need mobility parks. Yet now there are often not enough, and not located in all the right places, to meet current need."

Senior lecturer in primary health care and general practice at the University of Otago in Wellington Eileen McKinlay says a primary job for many future health professionals will be dealing with chronic illness and disabilities. To promote greater understanding of living with these conditions, she says the university has introduced interprofessional education - "learning with, from, and about [other health professionals and patients]."

Patients are involved in the process, and provide direct feedback to students, who McKinlay says "really appreciate and enjoy it".

"The patients nominate health professionals who have made a difference to their lives - medical support, but also social support."

Social support - that involves everyone. It means leaving mobility parks for those in need, asking a disabled person if they need assistance, taking time to repeat sentences when talking to someone with a brain injury.

"One patient nominated the supermarket as having a big impact on her life," McKinlay says.

In this case, staff would meet the woman (who had a mobility impairment) at the car park. If she was having a bad day they would go around with her, putting items in her trolley, helping her at the checkout, before loading groceries into her car.

She also nominated the Parkwise staff who monitor the carparks, for helping her.

Another person with disabilities nominated the pool attendant who would make sure the lift was working.

"It's things you wouldn't think about. Things that seem inconsequential, but to someone with disabilities, it makes a big difference."

A LONG LESSON IN A HARD LIFE

It always seems there are too many mobility car parks for the disabled and they hog all the best spots, until you're entitled to use one.

Then there are too few, or they're occupied, or you get glared at, told off even, when you park in one.

So I learned over the past 18 months as I went from fit and healthy, to needing a zimmer frame, then back to something akin to walking freely.

It was a long lesson about how hard life is for the disabled and for those who care for them.

Life changed when nerve damage robbed my legs of strength and balance, afflicting me with an awkward and ungainly walk.

Once my legs could power me through a marathon in less than three hours, now the smallest journey had to be assessed for potential difficulties. Are there stairs? Ramps? Handrails? Do you have to pay to use the disability park, is there a time limit on it? How far must you walk, or be pushed in a wheelchair?

Supermarket and airport travelators are a logistical nightmare. So are standard fire drills, particularly when you're on the fifth floor with stairs the only escape option.

Some public venues pose difficulties for wonky legs. Getting up and down the stairs at Wellington Stadium, Eden Park and movie theatres is a tortuous process - the stairs are awkward, handrails hard to spot. Mix in the prospect of a moving, swirling, alcohol-fuelled crowd, and you live in fear of being knocked over.

So you dwell in a no man's land of wanting to be where the action is, just like everyone else, yet needing help to do that.

As well as physical scars, there were mental ones. Some found it fun to replicate my "zombie newly emerged from the grave" like gait, mocking it as I hobbled by, much to the distress of my family.

But once I'd rebuilt my legs through hours of exercise and could move relatively freely, people got offended by that.

"You can't be serious," a middle-aged gent snarled in my face, after I had loaded beer and salad into the car at the supermarket. When I looked baffled, he carried on.

"Seriously, parking in a disability park when you don't have a permit, what were you thinking?"

When I pointed to my mobility permit he retreated apologetically. By then it was too late. He'd stirred up and belittled unpleasant memories of the 18 months that led me to that car park.

He knew nothing of the hammer-like impact on my family, nothing of the hard work put into fighting back from a potentially fatal disease.

Still, he had judged.

He wasn't the only one - one driver refused to reverse out of the way so I could park in the only spot left, mouthing "it's a disability park", shaking her head vigorously.

Of course there were many kind people too, such as the woman at Wellington Airport who helped me down an escalator without being asked.

Try to be that person.

PERMITS

There are two types of permits, both issued by medical practitioners Long-term permit: You can apply for a long-term permit if you have a permanent medical condition that affects your mobility. A long-term permit is valid for five years. Short-term permit: You can apply for a short-term permit if you have a temporary medical condition that affects your mobility. These are issued for a minimum of three months and a maximum of 12 months. Source: www.mobilityparking.org.nz

BUT YOU DON'T LOOK DISABLED

A Facebook page set up to name and shame those who illegally use mobility parks recently invited people to comment about their issues with "invisible disabilities".

Here are some excerpts:

Whenever this happens to me I smile politely and say ‘I am so sorry about your eyesight, It must be awful not to be able to see things right in front of your nose' and point to my card. If they say that I dont look disabled, I say, also politely, ‘Oh I am so terribly sorry I will ask my tumour to grow to a large size on the top of my head next time so that people with impaired vision such as yourself can see it.' Generally they start apologising a lot by [then].

As someone with a chronic lung condition I often get mistaken for someone misusing a disabled parking space. One instance went something like this:

Woman: That's a wheelchair space and you're not in a wheelchair

Me: No it's a space for disabled people

Woman: You're not disabled

Me: Actually I have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, my lungs only work at 30 per cent and I have a disabled permit to park here

Woman: Mumbles apologies and hurries away.

The abuse from strangers when you have a disabled child is awful. These car parks are not just for old people . . . they seem to think they are.

I have been abused for using the park even though I have a permit. I think they are thinking they are doing a "service" by policing it but, really, police those who DON'T have a card displayed. And if I see someone without a card displayed I always say first (very politely), "I think you've forgotten to display your disabled parking permit" - half the time people are thankful for me reminding them (we've all forgotten at least once! lol), the other half just abuse me back saying to mind my own business!

- Sunday Star Times

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