I recently renewed my full drivers licence and not just as a form of photo identification. I am thankful for the ability to drive and it has given me greater independence. It’s a great feeling knowing that my disability isn’t obviously when I am in the drivers seat of a motor vehicle.
Getting my licence
I was encouraged by my parents to get my drivers licence when I turned of legal age to drive. I was extremely nervous and had no idea what to expect. I studied the guides and sat the computer test similar to my friends. I passed, had my L plates and the basic knowledge to drive a car.
I then went to Mona Vale in Sydney to get accessed my ability to drive by a qualified Occupational Therapist (OT) and given a lesson on how to drive using hand controls by a driving instructor. I was given a theory test and after passing went outside for my first lesson. I was lifted into a large four-wheel drive type vehicle and it felt like a tank. My wheelchair cushion allowed me to see over the steering wheel. Mum opted to sit out while Dad sat in the black with the OT and I sat in the front with the driving instructor. I wanted to watch what my hands were doing in controlling the car but I also knew that I had to watch where I was going without getting too distracted by the views of the beach. I drive very slowly and with caution around the same route pulling over multiple times to let other cars pass. It was hard to believe that I could drive a car! I had restrictions placed on my licence including able to drive automatic only.
I completed my 120 hours of driving learning from my Dad, Mum, oldest brother and taking professional lessons. I continued to pass the tests progressing onto my p plates and to obtain my full license.
Ergonomic (great word!) driving is important because it looks at the relationship between the driver and their vehicle to maximise the mechanical advantage of the driver in the car to minimise the stress on the body whilst driving.
I bought a new small car and had it professionally modified. On my steering wheel is a round spinner knob that makes it easy to drive with only one hand on the steering wheel (my left hand). Slightly behind my steering wheel on the right hand side is a push-pull accelerator and break device. I push to control the break and pull to accelerate. On the same device is my blinkers, lights, horn and windscreen wipers. I also have a large centre mirror to allow me to see with restricted neck movement. A raised seat with cushion allows me to see where I am going.
Able-bodied drivers are able to drive my car. My specialist equipment is added but nothing is taken away. An able-bodied driver can simply ignore my specialist equipment and drive as per usual. It’s not so bad if they hit their knee on the right hand device because it will only make the car break.
Technology has made driving easier and I upgraded my car a few years ago. Cruise control has meant that I can drive longer distances without tiring. Automatic windscreen wipers and lights takes away my worry of letting go of the steering wheel or accelerator.
Transferring myself & stowing my wheelchair
At first I was able to drive independently but relied on the help of others to get myself and my wheelchair in and out of the car. I used a slide board to get myself in and out of the car with someone helping move my legs and then putting my wheelchair in and out of the boot of my car.
I then had a hoist placed on my car roof to load my wheelchair. I found it too difficult to use and had heard horror stores of wheelchairs being flown off their cars when travelling at fast distances on highways. I also felt the drag of the wind and the extra weight caused me to use more fuel.
I went to rehab and one of my goals was to gain greater independence including being able to put myself and my wheelchair in and out of my car. My OT, physio and I worked together to build my strength, confidence and find the best way to do so. We worked on dismantling the wheelchair and putting it inside the car. The wheelchair had to be a rigid frame (non collapsible) and light in weight. I first tried a Quickie, a Ti-Lite and then tried an Italian carbon-fibre Progeo. We knew that the Progeo was the best option when my OT looked away for a moment and when she looked back I had the wheelchair in the car. I was very slow at first and often forgot the order. We created a cheat sheet and kept practicing. I got better with time and bumped the horn less and less. I have since changed how I do it.
- I transfer myself to the drivers seat using a sideboard
- Take cushion off wheelchair and place on the back seat
- Take the wheels off one at a time and place behind the front passenger seat
- Lift the wheelchair frame into the car, over the steering wheel and place on the passenger seat
- Close the door and drive away.
- Reverse to get back out.
I have a disability parking permit and make use of the larger designated spaces to get safely in and out of my car. I prefer spaces to be on an even and flat surface. It’s an added bonus when it’s undercover to protect me from the elements and being close to the entrance.
I have always refilled my car by taking an able-bodied person with me when I have needed to refuel my car. Another option is to get in contact with a petrol station and arrange a service where you beep your horn for assistance.