Drivers Ed. the Adapted Version


In the SCI/D community, we often discuss topics around inaccessibility. This is crucial, as these conversations highlight injustices, helping us move toward a more accessible world. Despite numerous examples of inaccessibility still surrounding us, there are a variety of technological advancements and improvements in accessibility that deserve our attention.This form of accessibility has benefited my family, and I hope to share what the process has looked like.

My little sister, Kendall, sustained an SCI as a result of a spinal stroke at age 12. Now, as a 15-year-old, she is driving with her learner’s permit! Kendall’s ability to drive is not dependent on her leg function. Rather, she uses hand controls. This adaptive equipment allows for anyone with a prescription from their doctor and adequate training to drive.

If you are not familiar with hand controls, I’ll give you a brief crash course.

There are numerous types of hand controls. For Kendall, the right hand will be used to accelerate and brake, whereas the left hand will steer (this may be reversed, though). The control is near the right side of the steering wheel. Connecting the hand controls to the gas and brake pedals is a rod-like structure. Pulling back accelerates and pushing forward on the control engages the brake. With her left hand, she utilizes a detachable knob on the steering wheel to make turns. Otherwise, her left hand will stay on the steering wheel as usual. Over the pedals, you may find a removable foot cover. This safety feature prevents the driver from accidentally hitting the gas or brake due to a spasm or involuntary movement. A vehicle can be adapted with hand controls and still used by able-bodied individuals. They will simply remove the knob and footplate, and the hand controls will not interfere with driving. This is great for interabled families who share a vehicle (like mine!). 

Kendall’s situation is unique in that she never learned to drive before her injury, as she was so young. That said, she had time before she began the driving process, and she did not have any prior experience to compare it with. However, for many adults with a new SCI/D, the learning curve may be more evident. Please do not let the fear of the learning curve hold you back, though! To provide some comfort, let me share how the education portion plays out.

A few months before her 15th birthday, Kendall and my mom worked with her PM&R doctor and pediatrician to have a prescription written for the hand controls. Basically, your medical team needs to confirm that you do in fact need to drive with hand controls. They will  verify that you have no medical complications that would impair your ability to drive safely with the hand controls. Upon receiving the prescription, my family worked with a local occupational therapist that runs an adaptive driver’s ed program. Unfortunately, this is often not offered by local schools or the government. Consequently, it can be quite pricey, but we will discuss that later. If you have never had a driver’s license, like Kendall, you will need to complete the written portion of your state’s driver’s ed program before you can engage in  behind-the-wheel with an OT. The behind-the-wheel element required Kendall to drive in the program’s adapted van for a certain number of hours with the OT. Upon completing this, my mom learned about the basics and safety features so that she could be a suitable person to monitor Kendall’s driving until she gets her license. This process took about 7 months. 

While this technology is incredible and provides accessibility, we still have a long way to go. As I mentioned earlier, adaptive driving can cost a pretty penny. This is unfortunate, as many states pay for able-bodied people to partake in driver’s ed. Similarly, the cost of actually installing hand controls into a vehicle can cost thousands of dollars. We fundraised to help with some of the costs, but this does not eliminate the fact that ableism is nestled into the driving system in America. I do know that some states offer the installation of hand controls through vocational rehab. Check with your state to find out more!

If you or a loved one has an SCI/D and are looking into the driving process, I hope I was able to gift you some insight. Kendall’s experience has opened my eyes to the beauty of accessibility, making me immensely grateful for the advancement of hand controls! Please feel free to leave a comment if you have questions, or if your experience has been different. 

*Each state and doctor may have different protocol when it comes to driving with hand controls*

Written by Peyton Tongate

A student at the University of Central Florida and the sister of someone with an SCI