Learning to Drive and Gaining Independence

Learning to Drive and Gaining Independence

Living Life with CP

For any teenager, learning to drive is a rite of passage from being a child to becoming an adult, and is no less important for someone with cerebral palsy, like me.

So, let’s go back to that time: In the summer after I graduated high school, although already 18, I had just gotten my learner’s permit. My mom had taken me driving around my high school’s parking lot a few times and on some back roads; my mom expressed concerns about teaching me in an appropriate way — she thought that if I needed hand controls instead of your standard gas and brake pedal, and that maybe someone else should teach me to drive.

She noted that she didn’t feel bad about how I was driving, but wanted to be sure there wasn’t some way to make it easier for me. I didn’t feel bad about my driving either; however, I didn’t know what I needed because I was scared to death, of course, and felt so far behind so many of my peers.

My mom reached out to my case worker to see about possibly modifying my car, but she said in order to do that the new driver must complete an evaluation and spend a certain amount of time driving with an instructor. Luckily, Good Shepherd, where I received both physical and occupational therapy since I was a toddler, had a driving program. The way that the eval worked was, in the beginning, kind of like an eye doctor appointment — the lady asked my mom and I a long list of questions, we talked about all of my problems and concerns; then I had my vision tested.

Do I need hand controls to drive?

After this, another woman entered the room and placed a gas pedal and break simulator and a traffic light simulator — you have to react to the traffic light with the correct pedals, and they also throw in distractions, like a squirrel or a ball or a child coming out into the road. This is to test your reaction times. When the test is over, you can then talk about the results. I remember the woman saying that most of my reactions were consistent with that of any new driver, and that they would get better in time. She recommended a number of hours I should complete with an instructor, just to be sure or in case I ran into problems. Fair enough.

I left feeling relieved that, despite having cerebral palsy, I didn’t need special hand controls to drive, but I was also curious at what assistive devices were out there. Our appointment was scheduled for the next day at 7 am. I was beyond nervous, but a little hopeful with a dash of excitement.

My mom drove me to the appointment and I met my instructor.  She seemed nice enough as she walked my mother and I to the car she would be teaching me in. She explained that this car had a brake on her side, and she would be able to stop the car should there be a problem. My stomach twisted as I sank into the driver’s seat. It was our first lesson and she had started questioning me the moment we left the parking lot.

“Have you always slouched to the right in your seat? Can’t you sit up?” I felt like she snapped this at me, but I don’t know if she did. A wave of heat washed over me as I began to become painfully aware of my surroundings, and my entrapment in this car with her. She pushes me over to ensure that I’m sitting straight. I try to take a deep breathe and focus on the road ahead.

One nerve-wrecking hour later, I returned to the parking lot where my mom was waiting. She saw the discouragement on my face and began questioning me as we got in the car; I explained to her how rude this woman was, how she made me feel really uncomfortable when she spoke. (She talked slow to me and continued to pick at me throughout our first day together.) My mother suggested I “see how it goes tomorrow.” Fine, maybe I just took her wrong.

Lessons not going so well

The next day, she was the same friendly woman while we all walked outside to the car; I had high hopes. But as soon as we left the parking lot she was back to her old self. This went on for two or three more lessons, until one day while I was driving on a road I had been on many times before, she slammed her foot on her brake and accused me of doing it and not knowing I had. (My left foot is basically useless, but I know what it’s doing.)

I told her I knew for sure it wasn’t me, but she insisted it was. I told my mom this, as I was just about reduced to tears after this lesson. My mom said she would take care of it at the next day’s lesson — where she gently reminded the woman that, despite cerebral palsy, I do have control of my body and that she felt I wasn’t a bad driver. My instructor smiled and laughed, nodding that she understood. Today we would be practicing parking … this would be my last lesson.

We pulled into a parking lot where this woman was incredibly tough on me about the way I made turns, my hand placement on the wheel, the way I sat, my parking, etc. Nothing that I could do was right. When we finally pulled into the parking lot at the lesson’s end, seeing my mom standing on the sidewalk was like seeing the heavens open up. I was getting ready to pull up to the curb next to my mom and I was definitely going under 10 mph. My instructor grabbed the wheel, while yelling at me not to hit the curb and slamming on her brake.

My mother witnessed all of this — and that I was a solid two feet away from the curb. She addressed the woman before I was even out of the car:  asking what I did wrong and saying how much she didn’t like nor appreciate her grabbing the wheel and yelling at me. “Those are not the things you do to a new driver, especially one that I don’t think is that bad.” My mother reported the instructor to a woman at the front desk as we left. I never went back to finish.

I didn’t need adaptions. My mom spent a few months teaching me, and I got my license. A few months later, I bought my own first car and I’ve been driving ever since. I know many disabled people now who don’t drive because they’re afraid. I want them to know that you can drive, if you choose to and want to! All it takes is time, patience, and a willingness to overcome your fears.

Believe in yourself. Learn to drive if you choose to; you are strong.

Note: Cerebral Palsy News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cerebral Palsy News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cerebral palsy.

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Hello, My name is Brittney and I am a columnist with Cerebral Palsy. I focus on writing about lifestyle and believe that everyone's experience is relevant, no matter the disability. I support, and advocate for, the mainstreaming and normalization of children with disabilities and their families, as well as advocating for parents and children who need to go the more specialized route. I hope that my content provides a positive reinforcement that it is possible to live a happy and fulfilled life even with a disability.

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