Disabled—Yet Able to Drive
“I CAN drive a car!” These words may sound unremarkable to you, but they had a profound effect on me. The 50-year-old man who spoke them was on the ground before me. Because he had contracted polio as a baby, his legs had scarcely grown at all. Tiny and useless, they were crossed beneath his body. Nonetheless, he had developed powerful arms and shoulders from years of moving about on his hands. And his complete lack of self-pity shamed me—especially the happy pride in his voice when he spoke of being able to drive.
You see, I had contracted polio myself at 28 years of age. I was devastated by the news that I could no longer walk without crutches. This man’s simple words helped me to cope with my depression. I reasoned to myself that if he, although more severely disabled than I, could rise above his affliction, then why couldn’t I do likewise? I decided right there that I too would drive a car again!
Not Quite So Easy
That was nearly 40 years ago. Back then, driving a car as a disabled person was not for the fainthearted. My modified car was quite a contraption! There was a crutch fitted under my left armpit, extending down to the clutch pedal. I engaged the clutch by moving my left shoulder forward. The accelerator was a hand-operated lever from an early Model T Ford, and the brake was also operated by a hand lever. Can you picture me driving? My shoulder was moving back and forth, my left hand was both steering and braking, and my right hand was occupied with steering, accelerating, and making hand signals! (In Australia we drive on the left side of the road.) Cars didn’t have traffic-indicator blinkers then.
I am thankful that those days of driving with cumbersome attachments are in the past. Today, with automatic transmissions and fingertip turn indicators, driving has been greatly simplified. Technological advances have enabled many disabled persons to drive. Some devices that are commonly used are described in the box on page 14.
My Personal Recommendations
If you are disabled and are thinking about modifying an automobile so that you can drive, I strongly advise that you approach a specialist in this field. He can arrange to have all machinery inspected to safeguard you as the driver and also your passengers. Because of the possibility of accidents, it is important to have comprehensive insurance from a recognized insurance company.
In general, it may be a wise precaution to take a companion along when driving. An ancient proverb prudently advises: “Two are better off than one, because together they can work more effectively. If one of them falls down, the other can help him up. But if someone is alone and falls, it’s just too bad, because there is no one to help him.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 10, Today’s English Version) A companion can be a great help in case you have an accident, a motor malfunction, or a flat tire. Some disabled drivers keep a cellular telephone in the car. They can thus drive alone, if necessary, with greater confidence.
It is also sensible for a disabled driver to join a motorists’ roadside service organization so that a call for help can fetch a quick response, day or night. The annual fee is usually modest—a small price to pay for the peace of mind it can offer.
It goes without saying that we disabled drivers should acknowledge our limitations and drive accordingly. We do not have to drive aggressively to prove we can drive as well as others. Rather, many disabled drivers have notices on their vehicles reading: “Disabled Driver—Caution,” or one with similar wording. This is simply a notice that the disabled driver may be cautious and may drive a little more slowly than others. It does not imply that others need to steer clear. In fact, in my experience, a disabled person scarcely takes longer to put on the brakes than an unimpaired driver does, particularly since the advent of modern attachments.
To Drive or Not—A Responsible Decision
If you are disabled and would like to drive a car, you should approach the matter with the utmost seriousness. First, consult your doctor and family members. You might also consider such questions as these: Is it necessary that I drive? Can I handle the possibility of an accident? Can I overcome any fears I might have? What are the advantages? Will my ability to drive enable me to get back into the work force? Might it help me to become more involved with other people?
Knowing when to quit is also vital. The day may come for any driver, disabled or not, when diminishing judgment and slowing reflexes make it imperative to make such a decision. If that time should come for you, remember that you have more than yourself to consider. What about those you love—your family and also your neighbor, your fellowman on the road? Might your impaired driving constitute a real danger to him?
In some countries, such as my homeland, Australia, each disabled driver over 65 years of age can only renew his driving license for a year at a time—and this after first obtaining a doctor’s certificate stating that he has no medical problems that might further impair his driving ability.
My Car and My Ministry
In this fast-moving age, the automobile has become a virtual necessity for Christians in some lands. Cars have helped them to reach thousands, perhaps millions of people with the good news of God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 24:14) This is especially so for the incapacitated, like me. My vehicle, modified for my personal needs, enables me to tell others of my conviction that there is a new world soon to come that will be free of accidents, sickness, and all disabilities. (Isaiah 35:5, 6) Some disabled persons have even been able to serve as full-time evangelizers.
One of Jehovah’s Witnesses confined to a wheelchair in Iowa, U.S.A., has been able to do this for many years. She relates that her van has helped her greatly; a fellow Witness designed its special controls, such as a hoist that lifts her up into the van. Once inside, she moves from the wheelchair into the driver’s seat. She says: “In this way I have been able to go out and call regularly on people at their homes, and I am usually able to conduct a number of Bible studies.”
In my own case, although I am not able to work full-time in the ministry, my modified vehicle has nevertheless been an invaluable asset in the preaching work. For many years I went from door to door on crutches, but as time went by, the demand on my arms and shoulders was taking its toll. So I had to work out a less strenuous way. Whether I’m working in town or out in the country, I choose houses with driveways that allow me to drive up close to the door.
On my first visit, I usually leave the car, walk to the front door on crutches, and briefly explain the purpose of my visit. If the householder shows some interest in the message, I try to build up a friendship so that on subsequent visits I may take the liberty of sounding the car horn to announce my presence—then it is their turn to come out to me.
This approach works well. Far from feeling inconvenienced, many householders agree to sit in the car with me for a few moments so that we can talk in comfort, protected from the elements. I am never without a number of householders who welcome my visit and look forward to discussing an encouraging Bible message and getting the latest Watchtower and Awake! magazines.
Of course, each disabled person’s situation is different. But perhaps driving will bring you the same benefits it has brought me—renewed confidence, independence, the chance to help others, and a great deal of pleasure from being able to say, “I am going for a drive!”—As told by Cecil W. Bruhn.
[Box on page 14]
How Cars Are Modified for the Disabled
MOST disabled drivers use their hands to do what their feet cannot. One type of hand control is especially convenient. It is a lever that fits neatly under the steering wheel and protrudes from the steering column. A steel rod runs from this lever down to the brake pedal. Pushing the lever forward applies the brake.
From this same unit, a cable is anchored to the accelerator. The lever has a two-way movement: forward for braking and upward for acceleration. It requires little strength. A marked advantage of this type of hand control is that it in no way hinders others from driving the vehicle in the usual manner. Additionally, the unit is easily transferred to other cars.
For those with reduced strength in their hands, a variation of this hand control is available. It works similarly, with forward movement for braking, but with a downward push for acceleration so that the mere weight of the hand activates the accelerator.
What About Wheelchairs?
An added problem confronts the disabled driver: What should he do with the wheelchair? Many younger drivers purchase two-door coupes that allow them to lift the wheelchair into the space behind the driver’s seat. This, of course, requires a good deal of strength in the arms and shoulders. Those not strong enough must wait for a friendly passerby to lift their chair into the vehicle.
One alternative is the wheelchair loader, a large fiberglass box mounted on the roof of the car. At the touch of a button, a small motor slowly upends the box so that the wheelchair can be loaded into it with pulleys. Once loaded, the box lies flat again. One such loader available in Australia connects conveniently to the car’s cigarette lighter.
A disadvantage to the wheelchair loader is that it adds wind drag to the car, which increases fuel consumption by 15 to 20 percent. In addition, the cost of the device itself may be daunting. Nevertheless, many still consider loading devices worthwhile for the independence they offer. One disabled woman remarked: “Now I can go anywhere by myself without someone having to be with me or be at my destination to help unload the wheelchair.”
[Picture on page 13]
I can witness from my car