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Vehicle modifications have made operating a vehicle a viable option for people of varied abilities. Learning to drive, however, is a more complex process.
Driving can ensure freedom, create possibilities
Learning to drive is one of life’s seminal steps. It’s a skill that, once mastered, provides independence and freedom. It accommodates personal and professional pursuits. Driving is one more skill that allows individuals to call their own shots.
After a vehicle is modified with customized equipment, however, there is the task of learning how to operate the vehicle. In many ways, knowing the rules of the road is the same for a person with disabilities as it is for anyone else. However, there are additional steps that are required to secure a valid adapted driver’s license.
The most important aspect of adaptive driving is making sure that vehicle modifications are suited to a driver’s unique needs and ensuring that a driver is comfortable out on the road.
What is adaptive, or assisted, driving?
Adaptive driving, also referred to as assisted driving, is a form of driving that makes use of specialized equipment that serve the same purpose as conventional equipment components. The equipment is designed to make it easier for a person to safely operate a vehicle within his or her skill set, while abiding by the rules of the road.
For example, if a person is immobile below the waist, brakes and accelerators can be operated by hand controls or joysticks. Or, if a person has use of a left hand and not a right, controls can be relocated on the vehicle’s console. Additionally, modifications such as wheelchair lifts and ramps, accessible doors and handles engineered in vehicles so drivers – and passengers, for that matter – can enter, be secured within, or exit a vehicle with ease.
Learning to drive a modified vehicle can be a challenge in and of itself. There are, however, specialists – often occupational therapist with specialized training – and resources that can assist people in learning how to drive a vehicle confidently.
Why is adaptive driving important for people with disabilities?
Driving gives people a sense of freedom and allows them to engage in regular activities when and where they want to without depending on others for transportation. It simply enhances a person’s ability to live life by his or her design.
A person that is able to drive may find it easier to travel to and from work without being burdened by transit schedules. They may also be able to accept employment in locations not easily accessible to commuter stations. People with disabilities have a jobless rate that far exceeds the national average; it’s estimated that 40 percent of people with special needs are unemployed. Often, it’s not a person’s education or ability level that is limiting his or her job outlook; it’s their ability to get to work – reliably and safely – on a regular basis.
There’s also a social plus for people with disabilities that learn to drive. They can attend events, socialize, and take part in hobbies, activities and interests without having to arrange for transportation.
Not everyone with a disability will be able to drive. For people that are able to, that choose to pursue licensure, however, the step is usually one that breaks barriers to inclusion, while opening doors to more control over one’s own life.
How does a person learn how to drive using adaptive equipment once a vehicle is outfitted?
The first step towards licensure begins when a person consults with his or her physician to ask the question, “Is it possible that I could learn how to drive?”
The physician will then conduct a physical examination to determine if a person’s physical, cognitive, and psychological condition renders him or her prepared to operate a motor vehicle. Some of the factors a physician will examine include:
- A person’s overall health
- The ability to use one’s limbs
- Fine and gross motor skills
- Any current physical injuries a person may have
- Visual impairment
Next, a prospective driver will need to consult with a driver rehabilitation specialist. When a vehicle is being outfitted, a driver rehabilitation specialist will take several evaluations to help determine what equipment would best suit an individual. The specialist will evaluate the following factors to determine a person’s level of driver readiness:
- Muscle strength, weakness
- Range of motion
- Reaction time
- Decision-making skills
- Ability to use, understand adaptive equipment
- Psychological health
During this evaluation, potential drivers should bring any essential adaptive equipment or assistive technology. This is especially true if a person uses a wheelchair; different chairs require different lifts.
How important is it that a vehicle is customized to an owner’s abilities during the learning process?
It’s crucial that the type of vehicle, as well as its modifications, fit with a driver’s abilities. This is one of the single most important factors that will secure driving privileges for a person; he or she will have to demonstrate to a state examiner that they can operate the vehicle and it’s equipment properly when they take their driver’s test.
For this reason, a person should have a long discussion with the rehabilitation specialist regarding what modifications are needed, and what makes him or her comfortable. Modified vehicles are not replaced as often as conventional cars and trucks; therefore, a driver needs to be completely at ease using all of the equipment. Total comfort is something that’s developed over time – a qualified driving instructor that is familiar with adaptive equipment should be able to help a person gain confidence before he or she takes a road exam.
How does a person obtain training?
Technological advancements have made driving a possibility for many people that would have been left with few options a decade ago. Those charged with providing driver’s training are also trained in helping an individual assess needs and procure equipment.
Finding a driver’s training program that offers instruction on how to operate a vehicle using adaptive equipment can seem elusive. People can seek referrals to a qualified instructor through the vocational rehabilitation department in their state; typically, this is an agency within a human services or workforce development division. Or they can consult with the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, or ADED at www.driver-ed.org. To locate a specialist within your state, visit the member directory at http://www.driver-ed.org/custom/directory/?pageid=209&showTitle=1.
On this site you will be able to locate a certified driver rehabilitation specialist, a driver rehabilitation specialist, and mobility equipment dealer members, driving ranges, driver training schools, and assistive driving service providers.
An agency should be able to provide a referral to an instructor that is:
- Familiar with vehicle modifications
- Versed in the challenges people with special needs face
- Knows all of the conventional rules of the road
- Familiar with any statewide licensing provisions
Occupational therapists that are also certified driver rehabilitation specialists can help an individual with ability assessments, vehicle assessments, vehicle modification evaluations, and consult with vehicle specification and modification consultants for equipment procurement.
Driving schools and assistive driving services provide a range of services from driver evaluations, behind the wheel evaluation and training, hand control guidance, left foot acceleration training, classroom instruction and on-the-road instruction. On a one-on-one basis, a driving instructor will teach a student individual methods of controlling the vehicle by using all of the modifications or adaptations, required.
Like any other driving course, adaptive driving instruction is designed to ensure people are comfortable behind the wheel, and can obey the rules of the road. Because those rules are the same for all, any training course will include book work, tests, driver’s training, supervised practice, and a road test.
What are the requirements to get a license when you have a disability?
The main requirement for licensure is that the applicant passes the required medical examination and can safely operate a vehicle while abiding by state laws. In addition, they will need to abide by unlicensed driver permit policies and procedures, and pass a driver’s test.
The fact that a person has a disability is not sufficient to deny a person a license. However, depending on a person’s abilities and the nature of the adaptive equipment in a vehicle, a person may be granted a restricted license.
What is the process a person must go through to get a license?
The application process to get a driver’s license is the same for a person that uses modifications as it is for the able-bodied – a person must prove that they understand the responsibility of driving, and the rules of the road.
In general, to get a driver’s license, a person must complete the following tasks:
- Be at least 16 years old
- Complete a driver’s education course
- Pass a written test administered by the state
- Pass a road test with a state assessor
- Pass an eye examination
- Fulfill the unlicensed driver’s permit requirements
The road test will be administered to an individual in his or her adapted vehicle. A number of tasks – such as stopping, turning, and parking will be part of the assessment. A written examination focuses on the procedure of driving and traffic rules. If a person cannot take the assessment using pen and paper. If a person requires assistance taking the test, he or she should call the state department of motor vehicles office nearest to their home ahead of time to make proper arrangements.
If a person does not have an adapted vehicle, he or she can borrow one; states don’t typically have rules about vehicle ownership. However, it should be a vehicle that a person is familiar with, trained on and intends to use.
A person will need to fill out an application for a license, and will need to provide proof that they have completed a driver’s education course. An eye exam will likely be administered in most states.
Anyone that applies for a driver’s license is required to disclose any medical ailments or conditions that could interfere with his or her ability drive. At the same time a person applies for a driver’s license, he or she should apply for a parking tab or placard.
What is a driver rehabilitation specialist, and what qualifications should he or she have?
A driver’s rehabilitation specialist is a professional that accesses a person’s ability to operate a motor vehicle. He or she is trained to recognize what support and service needs. Sometimes, a person will require documentation that he or she has consulted with a certified specialist before a license is granted.
Specialists perform several duties, including:
- Conduct verbal, written and behind the wheel assessments
- Identify needed modifications
- Assess whether vehicles match the driver’s needs
- Consult with physicians, therapists and psychologists to determine driver readiness
Finding a certified specialist is easier now that it was several years ago because more people with disabilities are learning to drive. The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, or ADED, maintains a list of qualified professionals.
Specialists undergo multiple forms of training and education before they can begin working in the field and before they can be certified. Most states require that a specialist maintain a professional license.
A specialist may practice in another related profession prior to their employment in the field. Those professions include:
- Physical therapist
- Occupational therapist
- Licensed psychologist
- Special education teacher
- Certified driver education teacher
The body that certifies specialists is the Association of Rehabilitation Specialists. To be certified, the specialist must meet the following qualifications:
- A bachelor’s degree and one year of professional experience, depending on the degree
- An associate’s degree with one year professional experience and an additional two in driver’s rehabilitation
- No degree, five years of experience
- Pass the certification exam
On the Go!
Transportation, for a person with a disability, is a major concern because when he or she can’t get from place to place, it tends to restrict him or her from participating in other life activities. Advances in technology have made private vehicle travel attainable, and even more preferable. More and more, individuals with a disability are able to modify their vehicles and obtain adaptive driver’s licensure to enhance independence. Whether traveling by air, by bus, on a train or in a wheelchair, travel must be safe and convenient for all.