Australian disability advocates are calling for greater safety protections and better wheelchair access across the nation's car parks, particularly outside places like busy supermarkets and shopping centres, where heavy traffic flow can prove extremely dangerous for those with special needs.
Being a wheelchair user in Australia is challenging enough at the best of times. Many struggle with uneven pavements that make day-to-day life difficult, public transport systems that are tricky to navigate, all while dealing with selfish drivers who repeatedly park in disabled spots — that is, when they're even on offer.
With one in five Aussies living with disability in 2023 — equal to almost four a half million people — Marayke Jonkers, a Sunshine Coast-based former Paralympic silver medallist, said now is the time councils and major shopping centres need to be looking at how they can improve the lives of disabled people.
Ms Jonkers told Yahoo News Australia that not only are disabled parking spots perpetually targeted by those who don't need them, they're often placed far away from a store's entrance, not wide enough, and not nearly as many are installed — especially outside crucial facilities — that are needed to meet demand.
'People don't understand what losing a park really means'
"I don't think people who don't use a wheelchair or have a disability realise what it really means, in reality, if you use a wheelchair like myself, and the widest park is taken," Ms Jonkers told Yahoo.
"Often, I can't even park somewhere else, because you can't open the door and get your wheelchair out. So what it means is that a person can't go shopping. It ruins their day or their week without getting what they needed, without getting to that appointment.
"And, it's quite a challenge actually getting something done about it. Some shopping centres will find people or tow a car or take action, but the police can't just waltz onto a private property, compared to if it happened in a public place."
Ms Jonkers said often there's just not enough incentive for shopping centre staff, be it rangers or those in the security team, to see people doing the wrong thing and report it. A lack of education and information contributes to many turning a blind eye when non-disabled people park in a specially allocated spots.
When those spots aren't available, it may mean that in order to simply get out of the car and climb into a wheelchair, a disabled person will need to park across two spots just to have sufficient space.
"I do find it intimidating if I was in such an urgent situation that I couldn't get accessible parking, and I had to do something like park across two spots — because you know you're going to come back to abuse or horrible notes on your car," Ms Jonkers said."But the only way that you can get the extra width is to use two spots, which of course means somebody else can't park — but there isn't any choice."
"It's very dangerous, because instead of getting out where there's wheelchair access, you're getting out and having to go up and down the ramps the cars drive on, instead of being able to go right in the door."
Car parks often a 'dangerous' place for wheelchair users
Zoe Simmons, a Melbourne-based disability advocate and wheelchair user, said feeling uncomfortable in Aussie carparks is an experience she's all to familiar with.
"If you do miss out on a park, especially if it's a particularly busy time — it's really dangerous for a number of reasons," Ms Simmons told Yahoo News Australia.
"If someone has difficulty walking, having to park further away, that obviously can exacerbate the pain and illness for people with certain conditions, it can cause dislocations and post-exertional malaise that can take days or weeks to recover from.
"It can be really hard in normal spaces to even get out of your car.
"There's also the safety issue, because if you're in a wheelchair, and you haven't been able to get an accessible spot, you have to go via your wheelchair, at seated height, through a car park when cars can't see you.
"So it's actually quite scary knowing that a car can't see you. Those are real, genuine concerns about safety and well-being as a result of a lack of these parking spots."
Ms Simmons said that on top of the issues people with visible disabilities face, there's a lot stigma attached to those with invisible disabilities as well.
"Lots of people don’t know many disabilities are invisible," she said. "There’s been a lot of people confronting those with invisible disabilities for using accessible parks, even if we have permits—it means a lot of people who need to use them may not use them, due to fear of stigma or persecution.
"I use my walking stick most of the time when leaving the car and I'm so anxious. I would often get calls from people, especially older people, as if I don't need that spot."
More work urgently needed
Both Ms Jonkers and Ms Simmons agreed more work urgently needs to be done across shopping facilities to make it easier for people not only in wheelchairs, but for the over four million Aussies living with disability.
"It's really important for people in leadership positions to continue to remind the general public about appropriate use of parking because it's not just about being able to get the park you want," Ms Jonkers said.
"It's literally about people physically being able to park — and if it's a shopping centre, it's costing your money because the customer can't get in the door.
"Apart from being the right thing to do in a human rights sense. Money really talks in this situation. Disabled people have money we'd like to spend.
"I'd really encourage stronger enforcement of looking at permits of people who are parked in these places... this is just as essential as another facility's upkeep, just like making sure that the toilets are cleaned inside."
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