Cancer survivor abused over carparks

By Adriana Weber

Cancer survivor Luke Van der Leeden and his mother Marice are upset that they have been the target of verbal abuse because they use a mobility permit. PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER
Cancer survivor Luke Van der Leeden and his mother Marice are upset that they have been the target of verbal abuse because they use a mobility permit. PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER

The family of a young cancer survivor say they've been the target of abuse, threats and judgmental stares when using disabled car parks in Rotorua - even though they have a mobility card to do so.

While abuse of disabled car parks in Rotorua is not uncommon, with two people or more fined for illegally parking in the spots each week, locals are being warned not to wrongly accuse people of flouting the law.

Luke Van der Leeden, 11, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of bone cancer called Ewing's sarcoma when he was 7. He had to undergo dozens of tests, blood transfusions, chemotherapy, and an operation to amputate his leg. His knee was rotated and reattached at the hip, with his foot becoming his knee joint so a prosthetic could be fitted to function like a normal leg.

See our story about Luke from 2010

While the prosthetic means Luke can do most things any child his age can, such as ride his scooter, he often has trouble walking long distances.

His family was issued with a mobility parking permit which meant they could park in a disabled car park, and he didn't have to walk too far to reach shops or attractions.

However, they say it's resulted in several incidents in which people have approached them insisting, and sometimes yelling, that they should not be parked in a disability park.

Most recently, Luke and his family were questioned by a tour operator for Leisure Time Tours about why they were using a disabled car park.

Luke's mother, Marice Van der Leeden replied that Luke had a disability, but was wearing long pants so the man could not see it. "Then he said something like, 'well, at least he can walk'. He thought it was a big joke, it was awful, I just felt like crying," Mrs Van der Leeden said.

Leisure Time Tours general manager Scott Mehrtens said he was disappointed to learn of the incident, and his employee's actions in no way represented the company's standards.

The employee said the family appeared fully abled and so had mistakenly questioned their use of the car park.

"We sincerely apologise to Luke and his family for any distress this incident may have caused," Mr Mehrtens said.

However this wasn't the first time the family have had such an encounter.

Last month, when visiting another local tourist attraction, a note was left on their windscreen which said none of the group was disabled, and threatened to post a picture of their car and number plate on social media. In another incident, a woman yelled abuse at them when they got out of their car.

Mrs Van der Leeden said she couldn't understand how people could miss their brightly coloured mobility card, and why they didn't just leave the family alone.

She said she hoped people would become more aware that not all disabilities were visible.

Senior administrator for CCS Disability Action Bay of Plenty Cheryl Mercer said that, unfortunately, abuse of mobility parking spaces was widespread.

"Often people will pop into a mobility parking space if it's empty, thinking they are only going to be a few minutes without realising the impact that this has on mobility parking permit holders," Ms Mercer said.

Permits were issued only if a doctor had verified the person met the required criteria and not all disabilities or conditions were visible, she said.

"While it's great people are keeping an eye on mobility parking spaces to reduce misuse of them, it very important to approach any situation with sensitivity and respect."

A Rotorua District Council spokesman said 149 people had each been fined $150 in the 2013/2014 financial year for parking vehicles in mobility spots.

- Rotorua Daily Post

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