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Absolutely! Most teenagers cannot wait until they are old enough to drive. It is considered a rite of passage. It brings a new sense of independence and freedom. Parents, on one hand, look forward to their child driving to help ease the burden of the parental carpool. But on the other hand, it does come with additional gray hairs and worry. Now include a disabled teenager into the mix, who is just as eager to gain independence and freedom as their typical peers and you have twice the concern. Yet it does not have to be that way. People with physical limitations, whether teenagers, veterans, stroke victims, or the elderly, can still learn how to successfully drive and operate a car with a little homework and utilizing the right resources.
My youngest daughter was born with spina bifida. She lives life from her wheelchair. When she turned 17 she wanted to learn how to drive. Not only would it give her additional independence, it would give her opportunities to achieve being on her own one day. People with disabilities want to do for themselves as much as they are able to without the help of others. Driving for her would mean she could further her education, seek employment and most of all, give her the confidence needed to live in a world that is not always disability friendly.
Before we could begin this endeavor, we had to do our homework. Many do not understand what it takes for a person with a disability to live life everyday. The simple things many of us take for granted are twice as difficult for a person with a disability. Take learning how to drive. For most people, we study a book, practice many hours, take the mandatory tests and once we pass, we have a drivers license. It’s not so simple for the disabled. Many pieces have to be configured before one jumps into this process.
The first step is to find out what your local and state organizations can do to help.
Vocational Rehabilitation Services is a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. This organization should be your first visit. They can help people with disabilities get in touch with properly trained experts who teach people with disabilities how to drive, how to seek funding (if qualified), for help in purchasing a vehicle and also for employment opportunities. One discouraging factor for the disabled is having to have their own transportation to be successfully employed. Finding employment due to a lack of transportation or having the funds to purchase an automobile can be difficult for many. Most disabled people are on Social Security or on a very limited income. Having money to purchase a car adapted to their needs can be out of their reach. This is where a counselor from Vocational Rehabilitation can help in establishing what is exactly needed on an individual basis and help get assistance from the proper organizations.
Another organization is Driver Rehabilitation Services (state specific). These are the professionals who teach a person the “how to” of driving with special equipment. Depending on the individual needs pertaining to one’s disability, each vehicle will be equipped to meet those needs. For example, if a person in a wheelchair learns to drive, more than likely they will learn with modified equipment such as hand controls, lifts, elevated seating, etc.
State Certified Driving Instructors, many who are also Occupational Therapists, can help individuals get in touch with the right people to begin this process. They are the ones who will be doing the instructing. Be sure the instructor is “State Certified.”
The Braun Chair Topper is one piece of equipment that can be used for people in wheelchairs. It is positioned and secured to the top of the vehicle for the wheelchair to be stored in while driving. It looks very similar to a hard top cargo carrier box. This device requires a folding wheelchair and is quite functional for those who cannot lift a wheelchair on their own to be placed inside the vehicle. It is controlled by a switch installed inside the car. Some other modifications may include:
- Hand controls needed for steering and braking. There are many different types of controls based on the individual’s preference and physical abilities.
- The Rain Tracker for hands-free windshield wiper engagement.
- An accelerator/brake pedal guard to prevent accidental engagement of the gas petal and brake. The pedal guard can be easily removed for non-disabled people to drive if needed.
Installing modifications properly is the key to efficient and safe driving of these vehicles. Choosing to use the NMEDA guarantees the highest standard of quality. NMEDA dealers are required to participate in the Quality Assurance Program (QAP), a nationally recognized accreditation program for adaptive mobility equipment. Like any vehicle, you want to be assured quality standards are taken to ensure top safety measures on all modifications. Through the QAP, dealers are required to provide trained and certified technicians, meticulous documentation, undergo strict inspections and audits, in addition to many other safety features you can read about here. Using accessible vans is another way many people with physical disabilities choose to drive. The NMEDA can be helpful in finding car dealerships across the USA and Canada that will work with vendors who can modify automobiles to suit a person’s individual needs. Many hours are needed to properly teach a person with a disability to use modified equipment before they can successfully drive on their own. They have to be able to pass their state driving test, which can easily be achieved using a state qualified driving instructor who has hand controls and specialized equipment on their vehicles while the process of attaining the individual’s vehicle is happening. This helps tremendously during the long waiting period for the individual’s modified car to be completed which involves paperwork, approvals, funding, etc.
How did it turn out for my daughter? She did receive her drivers license with the help of a qualified instructor. We were able to achieve financial assistance in helping purchase an automobile through the state funding programs. A state certified driving specialist helped get the necessary modifications installed in her vehicle pertaining to her individual needs. Through many hours of practice on her part in learning how to use the equipment specifically installed for her, she passed all tests to successfully drive on her own. She has been driving for five years now. She has had a safe driving record, all repairs needed have been made through an NMEDA dealer ( see NMEDA QAP), and she is a confident driver. We could not have done this without the help of many qualified professionals. You can find one at NMEDA QAP
It may seem daunting to even begin the process of driving for someone who has physical limitations. Like anything worth achieving, it takes hard work and perseverance. Transportation is the key to freedom and opens the door for many opportunities. We wanted to publish this story in light of the National Mobility Awareness Month. If you have your own story to share, please email us firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credits: Dani