When it came to driving, the only thing I saw myself operating was a power wheelchair and I wasn’t even good at that. This is how I saw it: Pedals are operated with feet, steering wheel turned with fingers gripped, and backing up meant twisting around to see what’s behind you. No way I could drive a car when I couldn’t walk or even hold my balance…
Then, I saw a C-6 quad jump into his red hot convertible Mitsubishi Spyder, take his chair apart, and drive away. “Cool!!!” I said and added “When can I do that?” to my list of favorite phrases.
Today, 12 years later, I drive a candy blue Ford Ranger. I love how I got to pick out the vehicle I wanted and get it adapted so that it could become an extension of me. I wasn’t ready for the convertible, given that my transfers were still pretty amateur but, with the help of an adaptive driving specialist, I “adapted” my thinking and chose a truck and added the bells and whistles to get me on the road again.
Driving is possible. In thinking about the whole process I put together some steps, with some input from others, as a guide to helping someone get back behind the wheel. It takes time and doesn’t happen over night but following these steps should help get you where you want to go.
1. Let the dust settle.
So many times in the first couple years, I begged God to let me feel the sand between my toes and to let me experience just one more time the feeling of running until I lost my breath. I was so restless after I got out of the hospital that every challenge frustrated me. Any opportunity to get back my former life I pursued with haphazard passion. And so did loved ones around me. We all wanted to be back to normal. We didn’t know what the steps were; we just saw where we wanted to be and like a bull to a cape, ran for the normalcy we yearned for. We hit walls, made mistakes, fought, broke down, and cried may times. But that is what rehabilitation is for. It’s a byproduct of growth and while you are going through the hell of it all, the best thing to do is to avoid being impulsive. (Which is very hard to do!) Please take my advice, DO NOT BUY A CAR RIGHT NOW. Not until the dust has settled and you have thought it through and followed these steps. I speak from experience and you will thank me, I promise!
But don’t let that restless energy go to waste either. Dream. Dream about where you want to be. Brainstorm ideas about how to get there and write them down in a journal to track your progress. Use this time to learn about your abilities and work toward maximizing your mobility. Don’t worry that you need help or use the bus or other modes of transportation because you’ve got your plan and are working towards it.
Choosing your own vehicle is like choosing your own pair of shoes. Think about the vehicle that fits you, that works for you, one that you like and, yes, one you can afford. It’s a taller order than choosing between Nike and Converse but it is do-able. Fortunately, every year more adaptations are being developed for accessible vehicles so there are lots of choices. Even if you drive a power wheelchair, there are many options for you.
What are others driving? How did they do it? You can learn a lot from others and can gain a lot of support and inspiration from just talking. What knowledge do other wheelchair users have about the process of driving again? What equipment do they use and how did they pay for it? Talk to as many people as you can. Granted, being in a larger city helps because there’s likely more wheelchair users around but you can also connect with people online. You can also send me your questions and I’ll give you my take 🙂
4. Seek out an adapted driving evaluator
NMEDA (National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association) requires that any actual driving equipment purchase through a member dealer be approved by a driving evaluator. This means that you have to meet with an adapted driving instructor/evaluator and demonstrate your ability to operate hand controls or any other driving equipment safely. The purpose is to ensure the safety of you, your passengers, and others on the road and to reduce liability for the dealer.
5. Figure out how to pay for it
If you look solely at the numbers, adapted driving is a bit expensive. Vocational Rehabilitation, Veteran’s benefits, worker’s compensation, and adapted equipment rebates from most vehicle brands help cut down the cost considerably. There are also lending companies that help with loans for adapted equipment. Check out what is available in your area.
6. Buy your car and get it modified
Enough said but be careful and don’t buy a used car over 65K miles if you expect to have the mods paid for by one or more of the above resources. I went through 2 vehicles before I was given the proper information about this, costing my family around $10K total. I made some mistakes early on, which is why I am writing this.
Anyway, when you’re ready, go get your vehicle! You will have to buy your vehicle because in most cases, only modifications will be covered.
7. Driver’s training and driver’s license
For me, driver’s training was very helpful because I was a new driver when I had my car accident so I was essentially starting over. States have different laws when it comes to adapted driving. Most require some sort of verification that you are able to operate a vehicle safely (either doctor’s signature on a form or a note from the driving evaluator) and yes, they require proof that you have a disability. Check out your State’s requirements by going to their motor vehicle department’s website or by calling them directly. Ask what requirements are there for in individual with a disability seeking a license. Take the test, get your license and get ready to have fun!
8. Enjoy your new found freedom!
Have fun! You’ve earned it. Now that you can drive, so many doors will open up to you. Hopefully, through the process you’ve learned that there are still so many things you can do and that your opportunities for “normalcy” are well within your grasp.
One last thing, take care of your vehicle. There are many factors that affect the lifetime of adapted vehicles- frequency and intensity of use, maintenance, heavy passengers or passengers using power wheelchairs- but you can maximize the life of your vehicle by following manufacturers recommendations for tuneups and repairs and by paying attention to warranties. In all, you’ll get the most out of your equipment with the better care you take of it.
National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, http://www.NMEDA.com/how-to-buy
- Adaptive Auto Technologies (autoinsurancecenter.com)
- Steps to independence for people dealing with paralysis (salisbury.wbtv.com)
- Permobil Launches Heavy Duty Mid-Wheel Drive Wheelchair (prweb.com)