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Driving With a Disability

Aaron Baker
Spinal Cord Injury Lifestyle Specialist | Shield HealthCare
06/28/17  4:42 PM PST
Driving With a Disability

Behind the Wheel

I love driving, but one of the most difficult aspects of my spinal cord injury was losing my independence and my ability to drive. Initially, I was dependent on someone to help me with every part of my every day life. As a high-level quadriplegic, I understood driving was out of the question for me at the time, but as the years went by and I became stronger and technology advanced, driving became a realistic goal I set for myself to regain a sense of independence.

Where There is a Will, There is a Way!

I have a few adventurous friends, that despite their full-body paralysis, drive, and even race motor vehicles! There is adaptive, car controlling technology out there that will amaze even the most technical rocket scientist and baffle the average Joe.

Imagine skidding a Corvette race car, around a corner, on a track at 80+ mph, using only head movements as control over the accelerator, steering and brakes!

This is not a video game. This is Sam Schmidt, high-level quadriplegic (former Indy Car racer and team owner) behind the wheel, guiding the machine, using some of the most advanced electronics ever developed.

In 2013 Sam partnered with a team of engineers from Arrow Electronics and medical researchers to become part of a ground breaking project they call SAM — modifying a car to be safely driven at speed by head movements.

This example is on the extreme end of vehicle modification and is not yet available to the general public, but it is still exciting to see where accessible driving is headed.

Hand Controls

The common “hand controls” are easily adapted to most vehicles and are readily available through area specific, driving programs and vehicle modification companies like Mobility Works.

There are two main types of hand controls: mechanical and electronic. There are variations and combinations of both types, that are based upon a drivers ability and needs.

My process of driving again was mistimed and unconventional. I began early by following the hospital-in-patient-rehabilitation protocol: attending a beginner adaptive driving class. At that time I sat, incapacitated, in the driver’s seat of a heavily adapted vehicle, but did not have the right adaptations for my limited ability. So I watched the co-driver (with his own steering wheel, accelerator and break pedal) drive the car. This depressing experience snuffed my interest in driving because in my mind, I am a racer, and I knew could drive circles around the instructor. I left the program sad and unwilling to try other modifications.

Years went by without driving myself, always sitting passenger, telling others how to drive – a backseat driver in the front. I had finally had enough and needed to find a way to create some independence. Without going to the DMV (which I do not recommend) or clinical instruction, my dad and I modified a Ford Explorer SUV with standard mechanical hand controls and steering knob. We found a large vacant parking lot and began to practice.

I still relish the day I set off on my first independent drive – I felt sixteen again! It was a tremendously liberating feeling and that sensation is something I still feel today while driving my big, black van.

For anyone contemplating their ability to drive: start your research and go for it!

The open road awaits.

-Aaron

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