One of the biggest hurdles in my recovery from my broken femur has been driving. I drive an adapted minivan, a sleek silver vehicle I have named Clyde. Clyde has a ramp which allows me to drive my wheelchair in and park it where the middle row of seats would normally be. My driver’s seat is mounted on a transfer seat base which allows it to swivel. I slide out of my wheelchair into the driver’s seat, rotate the seat to the front, slide forward, and drive. At least, that is how the process has worked for the past fourteen years until my orthopedic surgeon restricted me from putting weight on my left leg after surgery.
Since February I have worked in physical therapy to regain strength and function with the goal of being able to independently transfer in and out of my driver’s seat. My apartment is located in an area not served by our local public transportation. The disabled paratransit service does not come to my apartment as I live too far from a fixed bus route.
If I cannot independently drive, I have three options. I can ride as a passenger in my own van while someone else drives. I do this when I have to, but I am a terrible back seat driver in my own vehicle. Another option is to have someone help me get in my van at my starting location and someone else help me get out of my van at my final destination. Or, I can have someone accompany me every time I need to drive somewhere.
I have used each of these methods to remain employed and engaged in my community, and I am appreciative of the friends and family who continue to assist me. But when you are used to the having the ability to get up and go whenever you want, scheduling your activities around someone else is limiting. Like most people who have been driving for decades, I am used to the freedom of movement which comes with the privilege of being a licensed driver who owns a vehicle.
In early April, I reached an important rehabilitation milestone when I successfully transferred in and out of my driver’s seat. I required assistance, but I did it! After a few practice sessions, I began to drive around my neighborhood. Within two weeks, I was driving to and from my office once or twice each week. My knee protested from time to time, and realistically I was unable to drive for more than 45 minutes at a time before the discomfort became too much of a distraction. But I was driving!
This past Tuesday I reached an important milestone when, for the first time since January, I transferred into my driver’s seat and put on my seatbelt completely independently! It took me a good five minutes, and there were a few choice words flying out of my mouth from time to time, but I did it!
I still require assistance to get out of my driver’s seat and get back into my wheelchair, so I am not completely independent with driving. I don’t know if I will reach that status given the changes in my leg. This may be as far as I get with my rehabilitation when it comes to driving. I plan to make the move to driving from my wheelchair using hand controls within a year, so I just have to find a way to function until then.
For now, I know if I had to get somewhere in an emergency, I could get in my van and go. I might not be able to get out when I get there, but that’s a problem for another day.
My experience has given me a new perspective on the transportation difficulties people with disabilities face on a daily basis, particularly those who live in suburban or rural areas. I have not been as strong of an advocate for transportation as I could be. I plan to change that going forward. The push for community living can only be successful if people have access to their community and accessible transportation is a crucial component of independence.
In the days immediately following my discharge from the rehabilitation hospital while I was relearning how to function at home, I wondered if I would ever be able to take a road trip and spend the night anywhere other than my apartment. I enjoy traveling and the prospect of not being able to explore the world was frightening and depressing.
This is Memorial Day Weekend in the United States, the unofficial start of summer. I have spent every Memorial Day Weekend in my hometown except the year I was an exchange student and the year I was in the hospital after my gallbladder surgery. I was determined to find a way to make it home this weekend. Once I transferred into my driver’s seat on Tuesday I knew it would happen.
Yesterday I drove my van down the highway in the bright sunshine. I rolled down the window, cranked the music and sang the songs from my “move it” playlist with the wind blowing on my face. As I rolled to a stop at the end of the exit for Bainbridge, I couldn’t help smiling in triumph.
Sure, there is more work to do in my journey towards independence. But this weekend, I am content to be on the road again.