Hate crime event hears from support worker tormented after losing her sight

A blind woman believed to have lost her sight after her drink was spiked has told how she was tormented by children when she went for a walk with a white cane for the first time.

Emma Gilfoyle rapidly went blind after she had a bad reaction during a trip to a bowling alley, possibly when a substance added to a soft drink reacted with her medication.

She lost her job, home and independence and when she got her confidence to go out, she was picked on by primary school children who put wheelie bins in her path and grabbed her to spin her round and disorientate her.

Ms Gilfoyle, a former NHS support worker, was speaking at the launch of Durham Police’s Hate Hurts campaign aimed at tackling hate crimes, which encourages people to report more offences so the true extent of the picture is shown.

The 43-year-old, from Willington, County Durham, was the designated driver on a night out to a bowling alley in Stockton-on-Tees when she fell ill in 2008.

She said: “The symptoms happened very quickly and I went into hospital.

“I was really confused and I had a bad headache.

“I couldn’t move without pain.”

Ms Gilfoyle underwent three lumbar punctures in case she had meningitis, she developed blurred vision, and within five days she had lost her sight.

Medics told her they believed she could have had her drink spiked.

She said: “They never caught who did it, I have had to change my life because of what they think was a joke.”

Ms Gilfoyle moved from a flat in Sunderland to her parents’ home in Witton Gilbert, Durham, and learned how to walk with a cane.

But the first time she went out on her own to the local shop – on the day household rubbish was collected – a group of children cruelly made fun of her.

She said: “Suddenly there was a bin in front of me and I heard children laughing.

“I used my cane how I had been shown but a bin appeared straight after and suddenly the kids surrounded me.

“Every time I tried to get round them they were just there laughing and spinning me round again.

“I felt scared, I didn’t know what to do.

“It must have been a couple of minutes, but to me it felt a lot longer and then an adult shouted and the bins disappeared.”

Ms Gilfoyle managed to get home eventually but was so distraught that her father and nephew went out to find the culprits, and on finding the group of children, explained how upset they had made her.

She said: “They said it was funny, they just didn’t understand.”

The volunteer cricket coach did not report the incident to the police when it happened 10 years ago.

But she has since reported a taxi driver who refused to take her and her guide dog home, which resulted in the cabbie losing his licence.

She said people should report hate crimes – in her case believing the children who picked on her could have received some useful education about disability, and learned a lesson.

Ron Hogg, Durham’s Police and Crime Commissioner, said tackling hate crime was a priority.

He said: “Hate crime is very unpleasant and can be very traumatic for anyone who experiences it.

“It’s different from so many other types of crime and incidents because it’s so personal.

“People are victimised because of who they are and what they are perceived to be rather than because of something they’ve done.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Tom Wilkinson / PA Wire.