What would you do if you were prevented from being able to access the bank, post office, your child’s school, your workplace or even a public toilet? Then imagine it happening at least a few times a week.
This happens to me regularly because I am disabled. The problem is parking and the use of disability parking spaces by people who do not have a disability permit. And for me, the worst offenders are parents at schools and sporting clubs.
It is a battleground like no other. On one side you have a person with a disability who has been assessed as having a medical condition that severely restricts their mobility. On the other side you have an entitled or ignorant able-bodied person, who can often be aggressive.
There is no public space or private property in Australia that is immune to mobile people who steal the designated car parking spaces for disabled people. With today marking International Day of People with a Disability, I feel it is time I speak out.
When I lost my leg over five years ago, I knew that some people abused the system. I even had friends admit that they had used their elderly parent’s permit so that they could duck in and out of the shops as quickly as possible.
What I did not expect was the extent of the problem. It is a socially acceptable practice in many circles. I have lost count of the times I have watched a mother pull into a disability parking space and sit there, on her phone, flicking through Facebook while waiting for her child to arrive at her self-designated priority parking space. In the meantime, I am stuck in my car waiting for her to move.
I was also completely unprepared for the level of abuse I have received when I politely inform people that they are parking illegally.
Unbelievably, I have been told many times, “You don’t look disabled enough to have that space.”
“Bugger off and mind your own business,” said a big, burly tradesman when I explained that people like me needed those spaces. I showed him my leg was amputated above the knee and it was difficult at that time to walk at all. He told me I was a “sook” and I “should call the police”. I did call the police, in tears. It was humiliating.
Earlier this year, I poked my head into a business asking if anyone owned the car in the disability bay without a permit. The business owner said it was hers and that she was busy with clients and I should instead “park on the footpath”.
But nothing compares to the blatant abuse by parents at schools and sporting clubs who use these much needed parking spaces as a drop off or pick up zone. Walking an extra 20 metres to cricket or rugby training is too much for their little darling. They seem to much prefer a disabled parent or their disabled child struggle or just wait.
The classic line when you inform these parents of their misdemeanour is, “I was only five minutes”. And in those five minutes, my child’s game has started and I don’t get to see it because you prioritise your convenience over my disability. Their ignorance is breathtaking.
A Brisbane mother with a disabled child this week shared on Facebook a violent altercation with another parent in a school car park. The offending parent was confronted by a caretaker and proceeded to verbally abuse the caretaker before ramming him with her car. When the mother who needed the parking space for her child went over to defend the groundsman, the parent apparently said, “f-ck off, you dibber dobber.” The next day she said he yelled across the school grounds, “you deserve a retard kid”. I understand the matter has been referred to police.
I too have been verbally abused at my children’s primary school. A father told me he’d been parking in the disability parking bay for years and no one was going to stop him from continuing to do so. He told me to ‘piss off’.
This is an epidemic.
In 2015, the Australian Bureau of Statistics published figures showing that almost one in five Australians were living with a disability, and of those 78.5 per cent reported a physical condition. That is approximately 3.4 million Australians. Obviously, not all require disability parking permits.
But, those who do would be forced to either give up their human right to access basic services and wait for the entitled or ignorant driver to move their car or face a confrontation, abuse or disinterest.
Should the most vulnerable in our communities have to do this to get to the doctor, to buy food, to pay bills, to go to a concert, to go to the cinema or to collect their children from school?
This week in NSW, the toughest laws in Australia were introduced to deter people from illegally using disability parking spaces. If you do this in Sydney, you will now receive a $541 fine and one demerit point on your licence. NSW is the first state to use demerit points as a deterrent.
But the laws are widely different in other states. In Melbourne, you would receive a $78 fine which is hardly a deterrent when parking in the CBD averages $25-30 per hour. In Brisbane, you would incur a $220 fine and in Adelaide a $353 fine.
Nothing hurts more than hitting the hip pocket, but I am yet to see a local government inspector or a police officer randomly turn up at a school, shopping centre or sporting field to hand out fines to those illegally parking in disability bays.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 makes it against the law for public places to be inaccessible to people with a disability. Despite this, the abuse of disability parking spaces is endemic and cuts across all socio-economic groups.
Across Australia, our communities need and deserve better policing, an extensive education campaign and hefty penalties which include demerit points on your licence. We also need strong and principled parents to spread the word.
The message needs to be loud and clear. It is simply not okay to park in a disability parking space without a permit, not even for five minutes.
Ali France is a 43-year-old former journalist and mother of two who lives in Brisbane. She is an amputee, having lost her leg more than five year ago. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking here.