Taxi of Mum and Dad
If you ask anyone with a disability what is important to them in life; I would surmise that personal freedom and independence ranks high on that list. This is no different for me. Nothing embodies this more than hitting the open road in your own vehicle but was this even possible?
I already had a Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle (WAV) through the Motability Scheme that my parents drove on my behalf, but I wanted to move beyond the taxi of mum and dad.
The first step was to speak with Motability to discuss my aspirations. They were able to guide me through the process. I found them extremely professional and knowledgeable.
Assess, Adapt and Drive
We initially needed to establish if I would be fit to drive. I was advised to speak with my GP and seek a referral to The Scottish Driving Assessment Service (SDAS). They are an NHS provider that are often connected to rehabilitation facilities and the wheelchair service.
The appointment involved a physical assessment, testing of my eyesight and a detailed medical background on my capabilities. One of the more interesting aspects was they had a simulator that replicated the inside of a vehicle. It had a range of lights on a wall that would intermittently flash. I was asked to press buttons corresponding to the lights. This was to evaluate my reaction times and vision. It was an exciting experience that made me feel more like an astronaut preparing for a space voyage!
The therapist generated a report which detailed that I was capable of driving with significant adaptations alongside some general recommendations on what technology may assist me. This was sent to Motability but I was also given a copy so I could apply for my provisional licence through the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA).
You normally need to be 17 years of age to obtain a provisional licence although you can hold a licence within the UK from the age of 16 if you receive certain types of disability benefits.
I declared my disability with the DVLA, but Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) is generally seen as a stable condition. You need to demonstrate you are safe to operate a vehicle, but this is mostly down to driver self-discipline. The reality is I would NEVER drive if a fracture impaired my ability, but it did make me consider how I would deal with such occurrences.
I was always worried if I had fractured an arm if this would make my vehicle obsolete, but they already had provisions for such an event. My car is drive from wheelchair but does have a detachable seat that can be installed or removed, as necessary. The controls can be folded under the dashboard and a regular steering wheel fitted. This is so a mechanic or engineer can drive the vehicle, but it also allows for other named drivers such as a carer to drive on your behalf. An additional tie-down system is installed at the rear to allow me to also be a passenger.
I was visited by an adaptation specialist from Motability upon receiving my provisional licence. They had a van that resembled the inside of a fighter jet cockpit. This accessible demonstration vehicle was packed with features that included being able to swap over several types of controls from levers to joysticks so I could try different devices and identify what would meet my needs. It was my first ever test drive!
The cost to purchase and adapt a vehicle was certainly expensive. I therefore needed to put forward a case on why such a vehicle would benefit me compared to other solutions such as public transport and apply for a grant. The scheme leases the converted vehicle to you for a period of 5 to 7 years. My mobility component of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) which is now Personal Independence Payments (PIP) does go towards the vehicle and any grants awarded are means tested so you may need to contribute if you hold significant savings. The tax and insurance costs are all included as part of the Motability Scheme. This is also extended to routine repairs and breakdown cover.
My vehicle was ordered following my successful grant application and then the conversion work began on adapting the vehicle. This involved several trips to a specialist garage since everything was bespoke and effectively built around me. Motability did offer to cover any travel expenses for this period.
We determined that a small electronic steering wheel around 15 cm alongside a joystick that controls the gas and brake would be most suitable for my needs. I also have a small keypad operated by my thumb for secondary functions such as indicators. The wheelchair is secured using a bracket system that locks the chair into place. My very first car did see me internally transfer from the wheelchair into an electronic seat that would rotate and elevate as required. I subsequently opted for a drive from wheelchair option when renewing the lease due to my changing health needs.
My vehicle opens from the rear, and I gain access using a folding ramp. This is all electronic and is activated through a key fob or a button within the vehicle.
The seatbelt clips were raised, and I hook my strap onto the door within easy reach. It’s also possible to keep the seatbelt fully fastened and drive the chair into position. You can also apply for a seatbelt exemption through a GP if this is necessary.
One unique feature was my first vehicle had dual controls. A brake pedal was fitted within my passenger footwell for the driving instructor, but this could be easily removed after passing my test.
I was offered familiarisation training to get myself comfortable with the various controls. Motability can recommend instructors that specialise in adapted vehicles, but I opted for a regular instructor. I was also offered several paid lessons through Motability.
I didn’t find adjusting to driving a vehicle that difficult. It’s my belief that using powered wheelchairs for most of my life has helped develop some transferable skills such as my spatial awareness.
Theory and Practical Driving Test
I had already been studying the theory element of driving. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) can offer various accommodations for sitting the theory test. My local centre was accessible with disabled toilets. The only adjustment they made for me was to allow additional time to complete the theory test. It helped take some stress away from the process. Further adjustments can be made including the test being delivered through headphones, someone to read the screen or reword questions for you, hearing loops and providing a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter. You may need to request specific adjustments and ask a relevant professional such as a GP to support this request.
It’s often asked if you sit the same practical driving test as others given your vehicle is so specialised. The test is the same for everyone since we all share the same roads. They can offer adjustments or accommodations for you where reasonable. I was again provided additional time to conduct my test.
I did take the opportunity to allow my assessor to become familiar with my adaptations but ultimately, they were interested in me operating the vehicle on the road in a safe and controlled manner rather than the mechanisms used to drive. I did make a point of highlighting my own limitations and how I adjusted for this. My body was not necessarily able to rotate to the same extent so I would show them my extended mirrors that covered blind spots.
An element that did need a pragmatic approach was the ‘show me, tell me’ questions. The assessor will often ask you to demonstrate an activity involving the vehicle such as checking the engine oil levels or brake lights. I was physically limited in what could be demonstrated so I offered a detailed explanation on how such tasks would be resolved by myself taking into consideration my disability such as visiting a garage or asking a friend to assist.
All my cars have had automatic gears instead of manual shift and this is usually the preferred option in highly adapted vehicles. It’s worthwhile noting that sitting your test in an automatic will result in you only being qualified to drive that specific type of transmission.
I passed my test first time! It was a thrilling prospect that the world was now my oyster.
Me and The Highway
Those first few journeys alone can be daunting especially if you are far from home but it’s reassuring to know the scheme comes with RAC breakdown cover. They place you in the priority customer bracket due to disability, so it means response times are usually within 45 minutes.
The cars also have an option of an emergency alert system. You can press a big red button should you breakdown or have an accident. It connects you to an operator that can dispatch the relevant services. A GPS signal is also activated so the dispatcher can identify your location.
Refuelling the vehicle often needs more consideration. I usually take a friend, relative or carer with me to assist but many petrol stations now operate call for assistance schemes using mobile apps.
Wheels in Motion
I would highly recommend that anyone with OI explores the relevant options if they are interested in driving. Motability host several roadshows across the country that demonstrate some of the vehicles and adaptations available. If you can drive a powered wheelchair or operate a games console, then it’s likely a solution exists to enable you to drive if it’s medically appropriate. Technology has advanced so much. Communication is key so I strongly advise that you reach out to others and get those wheels in motion.
Jamie has given us a list of helpful driving resources and links. To view this, click here.