Learning to Drive With a Disability

As I was entering my teenage years, my parents and I were unsure whether I’d be able to drive a car. However, as with most things in my life, I knew I wanted to drive a car, and I was going to do anything I possibly could to make that happen.

While I didn’t drive a car until I obtained my permit, I was driving as early as 5 years old. I used to drive my Barbie Jeep around and around my neighborhood for hours on end. I’d turn on the little Barbie radio in the Jeep and “floor it,” flying down the sidewalk in my hot pink Barbie Jeep. As I got older, my Barbie Jeep transitioned to a go-cart and eventually a four-wheeler, but the go-carts we had were always my favorite. I know I likely drove way too fast, but I remember my neighborhood used to say that they always knew when I had my go-cart out because they’d hear my laughter and screams all the way down the block. Therefore, when I eventually got behind the wheel of a car, I had years of driving practice already. It’d be a piece of cake, right? Not quite.

I have spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, meaning my CP primarily impacts my legs and causes them to be incredibly stiff. Due to the stiffness of my legs and because I knew that my legs had a tendency to involuntarily shake if my foot was placed in a particular position (called clonus), I was pretty nervous about learning to drive a car. I didn’t know if I’d be able to move my foot from the gas to the brake quickly or easily enough. I also didn’t know whether my legs would become tired quicker due to having to be flexed when using the gas pedal and brake pedal. I had been told by my physical therapist at the time that there was always the option to utilize hand controls to control the gas and the brake as opposed to using my legs. However, I also knew that I wanted to do my best to drive just like everyone else.

A benefit I had when learning to drive was the fact that I lived in a small town. Because of that, I practiced driving on dirt roads, empty back roads that hardly had any traffic, and through town where the speed limit was only 25 miles per hour. Typical kids learning to drive might have been frustrated by this, but I was not. I wanted to become as comfortable driving on country back roads as I could. In order to test my response time, we’d be driving around and my mom would say “deer” (proof that we lived in the south), and I’d pretend I saw a deer in order to practice slamming on the brakes. We learned pretty quickly that I had no problem moving my right foot back and forth between the brake and the gas (which was a major relief on my part because I didn’t want to have to utilize hand controls).

The most important thing for me when learning to drive was taking it slow. Initially, due to my own fears, I drove really, really, really slow, but that changed as I became more comfortable. Once I got my permit, took driver’s ed, and accrued a certain number of driving hours, I was ready to take the driving aspect of the test to obtain my license. And despite all the practice I had, I was completely terrified.

When I took the driving test with a woman from the DMV in the passenger’s seat, initially everything was fine. However, within a few minutes my legs started shaking so badly that it was difficult to keep my foot steadily on the gas. The DMV woman noticed the shaking and said, “Why are you shaking like that?” I responded, “I shake when I’m nervous,” not wanting to bring up my disability for fear of her using that against me when determining if I passed or failed the test. Upon hearing my response, she asked me to pull over so I could “compose myself,” though I knew that no amount of sitting still would prevent my legs from shaking. Eventually, the shaking lessened to the point where I got back on the road and completed the test. Once we returned to the DMV, the woman’s response wasn’t what I was expecting. She said, “You almost didn’t pass,” as opposed to, “Congratulations.” Looking back on it now, I still feel like she was just overall skeptical about my ability to drive a car.

Because of my disability, learning to drive wasn’t just about getting my license and having a car to drive. It was so much more than that. It meant independence. It meant feeling included as a functional member of society. But more than anything, it opened so many doors in my future. There have been a few instances where people have been surprised to learn I am able to drive on my own, and I know in the disability world it is no easy feat. But I also know that if I had been unable to drive, I would have found some other way to take on an active role in my world. After all, my life has always been one of adaptation, but it has never been one of defeat.

 

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The beauty of my worst fear.

I’m afraid of the day when I’ll no longer be able to walk.

I spent my entire childhood learning to walk so I could be as independent as possible, despite my Cerebral Palsy. Before my intense operations, I learned to walk in my own way, my knees knocking together as I put one foot in front of the other. During the years I spent on a t-ball team, I loved the feeling of running to first base. Even though I typically got out before making it to first base, I ran with all my heart just like everyone else on my team. I ran in my own way, but it never stopped me from trying.

After my first operation at the age of 10, I had to completely relearn to walk after having my femurs straightened out and kept in place with rods. One year later, when I got the hardware removed that was placed during my first operation, I had to relearn to walk yet again. See, not walking was never even an option for me. I wanted to be like the other kids my age, and to do that, I had to be able to walk. I had to be as normal as I possibly could. Even when I was faced with physical pain that made me want to curl into myself and give up all together, I kept going. Every day, I literally walked towards my own independence, one step at a time.

Because I spent so much of my life struggling, and ultimately succeeding, to walk, the thought of reaching the day when I’ll no longer be able to walk is completely terrifying. In so many ways, when I reach that day, it will feel like a kind of giving up. Though I plan to walk for as many more years as I can, I am scared of the day when the pain will just be too much, when walking will be putting too much strain on my body. It’s especially frightening because I know how much physical pain I’m in on a daily basis currently. The realization that I am in so much physical pain and I’m only 22 is terrifying. Trying to imagine my level of pain when I reach age 30 is nearly impossible.

That is one great thing about fear though. It has the ability to help us find the determination and strength we didn’t know we had. Yes, my worst fear is seeing the day when I will no longer be able to walk. However, I’m not there yet. I am a long way off from that day. Today, I am able to walk and do the things I love, despite being in pain. Today, I am able to push through the pain, because the result…the view at the top of the mountain…is worth it. The happiness, joy, and pure bliss of the destination weighs so much more than the pain of the journey.

The fear lingers in the back of my mind, the fear of knowing one day I won’t be able to get to the top of Max Patch, my absolute favorite place in the world. However, the fear also gives me the strength and determination I need to continue doing what I love. Yes, one day I may not be able to walk because of the amount of pain I am in. But I’m not there yet. I’ve still got plenty of fight within me.