A disabled PhD student and seminar tutor at the University of York was the victim of abuse last week after she returned to her parked car to find a note that read: “Being fat and ugly doesn’t count as being disabled (Park Elsewhere).”
Sarah Metcalfe, 35, has ‘invisible illness’ fibromyalgia, a muscoskeletal pain and fatigue disorder, and parked her car in a disabled parking space at the Clifton Moor Tesco on Thursday 30 April to be closer to the supermarket entrance and make it easier to carry heavy shopping bags back to her car.
She was “shocked” and “in disbelief” when she returned to her car at 6pm and her son, aged 13, found the handwritten note on the front window of her car.
Metcalfe developed fibromyalgia after a fall resulted in neck and head injuries. She has experienced the symptoms, which include increased sensitivity to pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, muscle stiffness and problems with mental processes on a daily basis, for five years. However, she was not immediately diagnosed with the long-term condition.
In a Facebook post addressed to the person that wrote to the note, Metcalfe detailed the pain she was going through. She wrote: “Despite the fact that I work hard (I never take sick time), don’t claim disability benefits (not that it’s wrong for people that do) and I juggle work and family life I was really just having a BAD and very painful day.”
Metcalfe said she wants to raise awareness of her experience to highlight the fact that although people with ‘invisible illnesses’ may not look like they have disabilities, they still struggle with many aspects of daily life.
She told Nouse: “I didn’t really want to create attention to myself with getting this note because it’s quite embarrassing and it was quite hurtful, but I felt compelled to challenge perceptions of people in this way. That person who judged me on my appearance doesn’t know me as a person, doesn’t know what kind of day I’ve had or what’s going on in my life.”
Metcalfe stressed that her intentions were not to start a hate campaign against the writer of the note, saying: “I just felt like I needed to educate this person. If they did own up to what they did, I would happily sit down and talk to them and explain about what challenges I face on a day-to-day basis.”
The Sociology student acknowledges that the writer of the note may not have understood that she is disabled because she is not currently in possession of a Disabled Blue Badge, which ensures easier access for people with mobility difficulties to park closer to public places and areas.
Although she has applied for one, she is unsure whether she will be permitted one due to the nature of her illness. However, Metcalfe is legally able to park in a disabled space without a Blue Badge because the scheme only applies to on-street car parks.
She said the disabled car park at the Clifton Moor Tesco “didn’t have double yellow lines, or anything that made them look like they were official, and that it could be enforceable”, adding: “It doesn’t say that a blue badge is needed, so I just used my own judgment.”
Metcalfe also pointed out that there were around 40 empty spaces in the disabled parking space and said that because of this, she didn’t’ believe that she would be offending anyone.
She went on to say: “That’s the last thing I’d want to do, and it’s about the personal judgment and compassion of others rather than stereotyping people and being politically correct.”
Metcalfe added: “I would never park in an allocated blue badge car park in town, so if I was feeling like I was in agony – well, I’m in agony all of the time, but if I felt I couldn’t cope with it that day – I just wouldn’t go out, I wouldn’t venture out into town.”
Staff at the Clifton Moor Tesco were “horrified” to hear what had happened but said that there was no CCTV at the privately owned car park, and so they would have no indication of who had posted the note on her car.
Peter Quinn, Director of Student Support Services, said: “I am sorry to hear about this incident and hope the student involved is making use of their friends and support network … Although these types of incidents are likely to be rare, they could leave the recipient feeling distressed and disempowered.”
Metcalfe hopes that by sharing the note on Facebook the person will see it and “will think twice about saying those nasty things”. Her status has currently been shared almost 3,000 times.
One in ten students at York have a disability, the majority of which are likely to be non-visible.