How I Found Out I Could Drive
I always doubted whether I could ever drive. After all, I knew that my Cerebral Palsy (CP) meant that I wouldn’t be able to operate the foot-pedals inside a car.
- Are there any other ways to drive?
- How would I get my wheelchair into the car?
- What about gripping the steering wheel?
- Can I even drive with my disability?
All these questions and doubts about being in a wheelchair and becoming a driver were swirling around in my head.
I remember sitting down with my parents one evening when we found out together that these amazing centres existed across the UK that carried out driving assessments. My family have always encouraged my independence, and driving would be another means of me getting out there into the big wide world.
I found a centre near me - the South Wales Mobility and Driving Assessment Service in Cardiff - and read more about what they and the other regional Driving Mobility centres can do for disabled and older drivers.
"Book an appointment, stop worrying and let’s wait until the professionals tell you what they think".
A few weeks later, with all the correct identification and having filled out a small online questionnaire, I travelled to my local driving assessment centre in Cardiff, nervous but very excited.
By this time, I had passed my driving theory test and read up a little bit about the basics of driving on the web. So, I hoped that there would be a solution to help me learn to drive, my own way. Let me tell you, I was not disappointed one bit.
My Visit To The Driving Mobility Centre
The initial appointment at the South Wales Mobility and Driving Assessment Service centre was amazing. My nerves almost immediately vanished, thanks to the kindness of all the staff. They even offered me a cup of tea and biscuits while I was waiting!
The appointment itself was completely private which helped me relax even more. I was booked in to see a gentleman called Jeff, who made sure that I was always comfortable, and started my visit so positively by saying "Right, let’s see if we can get you on the road then Em!". His 'can-do' approach meant that I really enjoyed the whole appointment.
Jeff began by asking me how my Cerebral Palsy affected my day to day life. I explained that although I couldn't walk, I had some movement in legs and that my arms were predominantly what enabled my independence. I really felt that he listened to me from the outset and looking back, I think that's invaluable in this process. Although he was the expert and could probably tell instantly what kind of driving aids I needed, he wanted to give me the independence to talk through my preferences.
At one point he said, "I’m the expert about driving Emily but you are the expert about how you can drive", which really made sense to me.
We then went through the various booklets they had, which featured useful photographs of car adaptations being used and then he explained why he thought one would be better over the other. I got a great overview of each adaptation before we discussed whether I could see myself using them on the road, which was great!
Choosing The Right Driving Adaptations
Next up were the safety checks. Jeff asked me if I felt fit to drive and whether I took any medication that could affect my driving ability. We also ran through some basic vision checks before venturing outside to try out a modified vehicle.
"Follow me Emily" Jeff said. "We're called driving ability not disability, so come and see how you find the adaptions in my car". One thing that I believe is important to mention is that the Driving Assessment Centres certainly aren't 'one size fits all' in their approach to driving with a disability. They make it clear that you don't have to adapt to the solutions they offer you. Instead, they adapt things for you, making sure you're completely comfortable every step of the way. I felt that everyone at the assessment centre only wanted to help and encourage my independence and mobility.
My appointment lasted around ninety minutes from start to finish, and before I knew it I was transferring into the driving seat. How cool is that?! I felt as though Jeff was looking out for me at every turn, and nothing was ever too much trouble.
"How did you find that transfer Em?" he asked. "In an ideal world can we make that any easier for you?"
Working together, we decided that a flip-down seat (to bridge the gap between my wheelchair and the car) would be the best option for transferring into the vehicle. Then, I was asked about the best option for storing my wheelchair.
"So, now you're out of your wheelchair and sat in the driver's seat, can you lift your chair into the car, or shall we look at other options?" I think it's important to mention here that even though my ability was being tested, I was never made to feel 'unable'. Instead, I felt like everything was being tailored to best fit me and my CP. There was never a 'you can't' attitude. Instead, it was an incredibly positive 'of course you can! Let’s find out how' approach.
Loading, Transporting And Retrieving My Wheelchair
I was introduced to a Braun Chair Topper which is an amazing piece of kit. It sits on the top of the vehicle and looks a bit like a bike rack or roof box. My mates call it 'The Transformer'. In simple terms, it’s an electronic hoist mechanism that helps carry and store the wheelchair on the roof of your car. To use it, all I had to do was fold down my wheelchair, place the metal rod inside the chair's middle and then operate the hoist using the remote control to lift it onto the roof. Getting it down is just as easy. My wheelchair is brought down by the hoist, I unfold it, pull the metal rod out from my chair and voila...it's as simple as that!
This adaptation really made me believe that driving was possible. For the first time I realised that I could manage my wheelchair all on my own. My independence soared and I can honestly say that I felt on top of the world.
Choosing The Adaptations To Help Me To Drive
Next up were the hand controls inside the car. I realised that by using these smart innovations I would be able to drive a car using just my hands. I'm left handed, so my left hand (the one with the most strength) held onto a 'steering grip' (a mechanism integrated into the steering wheel to control how you steer the car) while my right hand held onto the 'push-pull hand controls' (a small mechanical lever that sits next to the steering wheel) through which I could push my hand forward to accelerate and pull it backwards to slow the vehicle. It even had a little indicator switch and horn button on the top too.
I had a go at driving around the car park. With Jeff's instruction and encouragement, I was able to get used to the hand controls quickly, even though it's a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time! Jeff suggested that I made the steering on my own car slightly lighter and that maybe I use a grip which would stabilise my wrist, as grip and dexterity issues are a big part of my CP.
Again, I felt so supported all the way through, and by the time I'd finished my laps around the car park I felt like a real driver. Around this time all my friends were learning to drive, and I had no doubt that I would be able to drive a car too!
The Motability Scheme And Choosing My New Car
By now Jeff's notepad looked like he was preparing for a four-hour exam, but he told me that he was confident I could learn to drive because now we knew what I needed to drive safely and get my driver's licence. He'd written down the names of all the adaptations we had agreed that I needed, which meant I could do a bit more research and look them all up later at home.
"Now, I’ll write a report for the DVLA and Motability" Jeff said, "and the next part is where it gets really exciting: picking your first car!"
We drove away from the appointment that evening with a list of driving instructors near me who specialise in teaching disabled drivers, advice about the best car choices to fit with the adaptations we'd agreed on (the roof box isn’t exactly small) and some great information about how the Motability Scheme works.
Everyone at the centre was fantastic throughout my visit. Looking back, I don't think there is anything more they could've done to support me. Honestly, they truly care about everyone they help, and help is what they do best. They still get in touch to check up on me from time to time!
The team at Motability were also amazing. I decided to choose a Motability car with no upfront Advance Payment (at the time I was still in college) and I couldn't believe how brilliant the choice was. I wanted to order my car as soon as I'd made up my mind (which took a while as I loved so many!). I decided I wanted a Renault Clio, so Motability directed me to my local Renault dealership in Swansea and gave me advice about the models that would work best with the chosen adaptations (which were later fitted to my Clio by L.T.C Mobility in Llanelli).
To fund the vehicle, Motability told me that a portion of my PIP payment (the Enhanced Rate Mobility Component part, currently worth £62.55) would cover the cost of the lease of the vehicle plus Motability also helped me with the adaptation costs. For example, the Braun Chair Topper that I needed normally retails for over £2,000, but Motability were able to subsidise the cost to bring it down to £600. I worked out that the money I would save on servicing and insuring a car (which is covered by Motability as a part of the lease) roughly amounted to the overall cost of my car and adaptations anyway, so it was money that I had already set aside.
Starting Lessons And Taking The Driving Test
Motability truly are unsung heroes. As soon as my car was ordered they gave me all the information I needed so the adaptations could be fitted as soon as it arrived at the dealership. They were always at the end of the phone if I needed them, and the adaptation team followed my journey right up until I started driving lessons, checking that I was happy with everything and to see if they could be any more help.
Everyone on my journey had focused on my ability, and now I was too. It was now time to focus on what was perhaps the most important thing of all: passing my driving test.
My instructor Darren (from the DLM Driving School in South Wales) was full of encouragement and so knowledgeable, covering everything from basic driving instruction to the intricacies of parking in a disabled space and allowing enough room to get in and out of the car safely. It wasn't just my driving ability that was important, accessibility was vital too. The whole process was amazing, and I passed my driving test first time!
So, how is everything now? Well, I've been successfully driving a car for over two years now, everything is fantastic, and I've just decided to renew my Motability lease and order another new car (I'm currently waiting for another Renault Clio to arrive).
And what would I tell someone like me who's doubting whether they'd be able to drive and keep their independence?
My advice would be as follows: You won't know until you try! But I promise you this, the professionals that you meet along the way will do anything and everything they can to help you reach your goals and gain your independence - you can do it!
For more information about driving with a disability check out these pages: