The ability to drive can mean independence and freedom. But what if you have a physical or cognitive disability? Thanks to developments in technology and driver education there are now fewer barriers to getting behind the wheel. So if getting your licence and taking to the open road is one of your goals, read on to find out how you might make that happen.

Antonio Vecchio was nineteen when a car accident left him a quadriplegic. Forced to relearn how to drive, Antonio describes a process involving rehabilitation, physiotherapists and occupational therapists. But he says it was worth it for the freedom driving gives him.

‘I was in rehabilitation and through the goal planning meeting we spoke about the possibility of driving and the process involved,’ Antonio said.

‘I started with working with a physio to get the skills to get in and out of the car and get my wheelchair in and out of the car. I had the driving lessons whilst in rehabilitation to get used to driving with hand controls and to assess what type of controls and accessories I would need to be able to drive.’

For Antonio, getting back behind the wheel means he doesn’t need to rely on friends or family or pay for taxis.

Driving and the NDIS

Making driving one of your goals is the first step towards getting behind the wheel. The NDIS can help you achieve your goal with funding through Capital and Capacity Building supports provided your disability is likely to affect your ability to drive or to learn to drive.

The NDIS may provide funding for vehicle modifications, access to allied health services like physiotherapists and occupational therapists and driver education and training.

According to Austroads Medical standards for licensing, an important early step towards getting your licence is a medical review. It’s something most driver licensing authorities will require and can be completed by your doctor. Next, depending on the outcome of your medical review, the driver licensing authority will likely request a practical driver assessment. This assessment is designed to assess the impact of your disability on your driving skills. Hence, these assessments are generally conducted by occupational therapists who are trained in driver assessment.

Image is of a man sitting in the drivers seat of a car. The vehicle has been modified with a assistive steering wheel. Inform: driving and the NDIS.
Antonio says that driving has given him freedom.

What does a practical driver assessment cover?

Depending on your disability, the assessment can include:

  • Your ability to control the vehicle
  • Determining the need for vehicle modifications
  • Your functional status including physical strength, reaction time and cognitive function
  • What your lifestyle is like and what your requirement for driving is
  • Your understanding and application of road laws

Similarly, if you haven’t held a licence before, the assessment will look at things like your cognitive or physical barriers and any necessary vehicle modifications. In addition, it will also establish your current skill level and create an individualised plan working with you and a driving instructor.

Your doctor and allied health professionals can’t make the final decision about whether you can get your licence, that responsibility rests with the driver licensing authority in your state. But there are a variety of options available to you, from a full, unconditional licence to a conditional licence. Conditional licences may include vehicle modifications, restrictions on night-time driving or driving when temperatures exceed set limits or area restrictions.

Driving is freedom

Occupational therapist Erin Burns says if driving is important to you, it’s worth pursuing even if the process seems daunting.

‘Not being able to drive is a significant barrier to accessing the community and engaging in the activities of daily life and often results in social isolation and disengagement,’ she said.

‘Obtaining a driver’s licence enables independence with transportation, and a person is then able to participate in community activities that they want and need to do.’

It’s a sentiment echoed by Antonio who encourages anyone with a disability thinking about getting behind the wheel to start the process early.

‘Speak with people who have the same level of injury [or disability] that you do to see how they drive and the set up that they use. Also, do your research on types of cars and hand controls,’ he said.

‘Driving has given me the freedom to go where I want when I want.’

‘Also, a sense of independence that I may not feel if I was dependent on other people.’

Modified for action

As technology develops, the types of vehicle modifications available increase. For example, additional mirrors to steer wheel spinner knobs, reversing cameras, hand controls and foot pedal modifications to wheelchair hoist systems and swivel seats. The list is long and getting longer.

Your occupational therapist or driving assessor can provide you with plenty of information about what’s available and what will work for your specific needs.

Tips for driving success

If driving is an important goal for you, here’s a few things to consider and some tips that might be useful:

  • Get comfortable as a passenger. Sit in the front seat and navigate to familiar places, pointing out hazards, road signs and traffic light changes.
  • Allow extra time for driver training, from lessons to studying the road rules.
  • Breakdown the big goal of getting your licence into smaller goals.
  • Consider using a driving simulator to get familiar with driving related skills in a low risk environment.
  • Get your friends and family involved, tell them that you want to get your licence and see how they can support you.
  • Chat to your medical team and see how that may be able to help you

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