For most people, driving is a symbol of independence and freedom. It’s also often necessary for work and for obtaining the necessities of life. It helps maintain our ability to socialize or take a long-anticipated vacation.
Unfortunately, an illness or injury can sometimes make it difficult for drivers to return to the road. Fortunately, there are people who can help.
I recently met a young woman who wanted to drive again after a spinal cord injury left her unable to walk. She wanted to return to college, coach cheerleading and work as she did before being injured. She couldn’t use her legs to control the gas and brake in a conventionally equipped vehicle, but this didn’t mean she couldn’t drive.
There are many skills necessary for the task of driving. The ability to maintain safe control of any vehicle requires the driver to use multiple controls, such as the steering wheel, gas, brakes and turn signals. Less frequently we need to control the air conditioning, cruise control, horn, emergency brake and windows. To operate these controls, a driver needs vision and upper- and lower-body range of motion, strength and coordination. And of course the brain must be able to quickly process a large amount of information to coordinate all the necessary movements.
Some conditions or illnesses make the coordination of movements more difficult. A stroke, spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis can cause many physical difficulties such as reduced strength, range of motion, reaction time and sensation. Other illnesses, such as dementia, can reduce cognitive skills such as problem-solving, memory, insight and reasoning.
Many people with disabilities can improve their skills through rehabilitation. Learning to dress, bathe or walk again are the first steps. Often the last step in the rehab process is returning to driving. There are experts, often in the field of occupational therapy, who focus on helping people return to the road. The first step is a thorough evaluation of skills necessary for driving, including an on-road assessment. The evaluation includes assessing strength, coordination, range of motion, vision, mobility and thinking skills. The on-the-road evaluation reveals how well people are able to handle a vehicle in traffic and real-life situations.
Depending on the disability, the driver might need adaptive equipment to control the vehicle. Devices such as hand controls help people with limited leg movement. A left foot accelerator might be needed for those who may have had a stroke affecting the right leg. Spinner knobs, special mirrors and pedal extensions are a few other devices to help overcome disabilities.
Remember the young lady I mentioned earlier?
After an evaluation and training, she regained more of her independence by being able to drive again. She uses hand controls and is able to load her wheelchair in the passenger seat. She has attained one more goal to return to the activities she loves.
For more information on the driving program at MedCentral Health System, or to make an appointment, call 419-526-8685.
By TREY COUNTS
Special to the News Journal
Trey Counts is an occupational therapist at MedCentral/Mansfield Hospital.