‘She told me to F-off’: Disabled woman faced torrent of abuse

Olivia Shiel regularly forced to make painful trek from school due to illegal parking

Olivia Shiel, who suffers from chronic pain and fatigue from a spinal cord injury, is often forced to park some distance from the school because of people illegally parked in the disabled space. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Olivia Shiel, who suffers from chronic pain and fatigue from a spinal cord injury, is often forced to park some distance from the school because of people illegally parked in the disabled space. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Recovering from a broken neck, Olivia Shiel was collecting her children from school when she was forced to park some distance away because a young woman was illegally parked in the disabled space.

The young woman was a repeat offender and regularly left the mother-of-three – permanently disabled after a medical procedure to remove a tumour on her spine – a painful trek from her car to the school gate.

When Shiel plucked up the courage one afternoon to approach the woman, aged in her 20s, rather than the expected embarrassment and apologetic retreat, she was met with a barrage of expletives.

“She got really aggressive, told me to F-off, asked what was wrong with me anyway, and gave me the two fingers and told me to put a smile on my face,” says Shiel.

“I was really close to tears. It was just horrible.”

Shiel, a former primary school teacher in Drogheda, Co Louth, had just been released from the National Rehabilitation Hospital. She was there for eight weeks after 30 weeks of treatment at Beaumont Hospital.

It was 2013 and the year before, at the age of 39, she had been diagnosed with a spinal tumour.

Doctors had to break her neck to remove the growth, leaving her with an incomplete spinal cord injury.

“I went from somebody who was completely able-bodied to someone who had to learn how to do the very basics in life again,” she says.

While she can walk, she needs a stick or frame and sometimes a wheelchair. She can’t walk very far or stand for very long. The effort involved in simply moving about has also led to chronic fatigue.

“I have to live with excruciating pain for the rest of my life.”

Abuse and threats

The incident at the school gate is at the more extreme end of reactions she has endured for claiming her rightful entitlement to a designated disabled space, but it is far from isolated.

A friend, a permanent wheelchair user, was on her way to a birthday party recently, when she rolled down her car window to let a man illegally parked in the disabled space know that she needed it.

“He roared abuse at her, threatened her,” says Shiel. “She just rolled up the window and cried. She couldn’t go to the party she was so upset.”

Recently, she joined other disability campaigners at a meeting with gardaí in Co Louth about Operation Enable, a clampdown on illegal use of disabled parking spaces set up last year by Sgt Peter Woods, of the Garda’s Dublin traffic division.

Severe pain

There were 35 organisations there, representing people with multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, spina bifida, motor neurone disease and other disabilities.

“Everyone could relate personal stories about people being really horrible over parking in disabled spaces,” says Shiel.

Her many disabled friends share similar experiences, and have been prevented from collecting their children at school, shopping, going to the post office or the bank.

She believes it is a small number of people responsible.

Although Shiel has a permit, she only uses disabled spaces when she is in particularly severe pain, knowing others will need it.

“Ninety-nine per cent of people are really nice – you’ll always get the 1 per cent. This small cohort of people who make life really, really difficult. They think it will never happen to them or someone they know, they are so self-absorbed.”