Persons with Disabilities at the Driving Seat

By Georgina Mumba

As the new driving challenge continues, it has been exciting, challenging and insightful. But before I get into that, I just wish to state how grateful I am to all you my friamily (friends and family) for the overwhelming support on this new journey.

The announcement of my driving has been received with overwhelming support and has ignited interesting conversations and awakened a lot of curiosity among many. Naturally, the advocate in me sees this as a great opportunity to have a conversation and shed some light on the opportunities, challenges and lessons arising from the issue of persons with physical disabilities (PWDs) being in the literal driving seat.

Driving Lessons

Most people wonder if I went to a ‘special’ driving school or had a ‘specialised’ instructor? If there are such schools or instructors, at the time of my research I could not find one. Therefore, I just went to a regular driving school and was taught by a regular instructor. Honestly, I hope someone reading this would take it upon themselves to ensure there are specialised driving instructors for PWDs especially now that there is a policy encouraging PWDs on the road as a mitigating response to the obvious exclusion of PWDs from public transport.

The main challenge that arose during my lessons was my instructor’s limited familiarity with my vehicle’s controls, how they relate to my impairments and ultimately how collectively this affects me as a driver. We had to work together for a while to get to a place where he could do his job effectively.

Additionally, there was the psychological influence of living with a disability. It is a conflicting feeling between having the desire to be independent and stepping into a realm abounding with victims you can actually relate to. Therefore, some days were particularly emotionally difficult for both of us and mostly because, from my point of view, he could not sufficiently relate to the world I was coming from and how that affected my venturing into the driving challenge. Overall, it was an informative journey for all concerned but one that would have been less challenging if particular knowledge was available for both of us before-hand.

The Vehicle

One other key question has been regarding the type of vehicle I am using. The fair assumption is that for a person with impairments such as mine to actually drive requires a special vehicle. The answer is yes and no. First of all, I drive a simple vehicle- a regular Funcargo. It is, however, special in that it is modified to allow me use my hands instead of my feet for all feet related controls. Otherwise, the modifications are fairly basic. It, however, must be noted that the level of modifications that must be done to a vehicle to allow a person with a physical disability is directly dependent on the level of impairment/s. There are options to effect such modifications and the best, in my opinion, is to communicate these specifications to the supplier prior to the purchase. For an off the shelf purchase, clear and very specific instructions to the supplier would equally work better than post purchase modifications.

Why this Vehicle

I specifically chose a Funcargo because of 1) its interior space is perfect for my wheelchair hence I don’t even need to fold it in transit, 2) the height is great for my transfers as the car seat is fairly on the same level as my wheelchair, and 3) fuel consumption. This is not a vehicle for me per se but rather a mobility aid therefore by default my expenditure on fuel is expected to be a little more regular.

Loading and Offloading the Wheelchair

The other key question many have asked is how do I manage loading and offloading the wheelchair when alone? Again, the answer on this is informed by the level of someone’s physical abilities, type of wheelchair and vehicle. For some, loading and offloading a wheelchair (manual wheelchair) is not an issue because of the strength of their upper bodies. There are plenty of videos on Youtube on how this can be done. The other easier way is when the vehicle has a ramp at the back which allows the driver/passenger to just roll into the vehicle while still seated in the wheelchair. An additional option is a wheelchair lift. There are various types of wheelchair lifts whose specifications abound on the internet. However, when selecting mobility aids it is always best to work in close consultation with an occupational therapist and the supplier of the aid.

However, while all options other than doing it myself are best for my level of impairments, such modifications comes with a price tag I personally cannot afford. Therefore, for my part, while I have full use of my upper limbs I must also state that I equally have an extreme case of scoliosis due to limited and late access to rehabilitation in the early stages of my disability and continued bad posture over the years due to use of improper wheelchairs.

Therefore, it is unsafe for me to independently load and unload the wheelchair on and off the vehicle. Thus while at home that is taken care of, at work I depend on assistance from anyone in the car park or call for help from a friend from the office.

Access as a Barrier to Real and Effective Independence

Past the initial euphoria of finally being independent mobility-wise, reality settles in that for as long as access remains a challenge, real and effective independence for persons with physical disabilities still remains a fantasy in these parts of the world.

In as much as I can drive myself, I still need to move with someone to gain access to most of my destinations. For example, while there is a ramp at the office, it is hardly possible for me to access the building without help. Above everything else, specifications of the ramp (too steep) make it very difficult and unsafe for me to use it independently. The same goes for most other facilities I would wish to visit. Therefore, while I can take myself from my gate to the gate of my destination, I still have not gained real and effective independence and access to society.

And this goes back to my continued advocacy on ensuring the RIGHT ramps are installed. The whole purpose of effective accessibility is to effectively empower a PWD to independently and safely enter, manoeuvre within and exit the premises. If either or both factors are infringed upon then nothing would have really been achieved except resources would have unfortunately been wasted.

Safety in Transit

The other burning question is what is my In Case of Emergency Plan (ICEP)? Now that is a million dollar question-it always makes me extraordinarily grateful when I get to my destination incident free. Naturally, I have no formal carer, therefore the daily trip to and from work is without company. So if I were to have a flat tyre or any other similar emergency at a minimum I would pin my hopes on the goodwill of a good Samaritan. However, the issue is not the lack of good Samaritan but rather how I am to communicate my distress.

For a regular motorist the standard, other than flashing hazards, is to put triangles a few meters away from the vehicle to signal to other motorists of my obstruction and in a way of my distress. Naturally, if alone I cannot access my wheelchair so it is practically impossible for me to lay the triangles and even if I could I hardly imagine doing transfers in the middle of a road would be a Nobel idea. Furthermore, my research on where I can get a blue badge or the Zambian version has proved fruitless so far. Therefore, without this basic minimum form of communication it is also a challenge to access handicap parking spaces. In the interim I have resolved to lay a notice at the back of my vehicle informing other motorists that I am a physically impaired driver. I honestly have mixed feelings about this glaring tag but I thought it wiser to err on the side of caution.

In conclusion, driving as a person with a physical disability in a country notoriously devoid of accessible public transport is clearly a step in the right direction. However, it is not the ultimate answer nor an answer that helps many. There is still a lot of PWDs that are still excluded even with such interventions in place and even those that can drive still face a lot of challenges in effectively gaining mobility independence.

By Georgina Mumba (Zambia 2016)

mumba.georgie@yahoo.com

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