Assistive Technology Center at Shepherd Center Helps Clients Return to Driving
Being able to drive again after a spinal cord or brain injury restores a measure of independence.
Being able to drive means freedom; just ask any 16-year-old. Whether it’s going out and painting the town red or running workaday errands, getting behind the wheel allows people to do what they need and want to do.
As part of the injury rehabilitation process, clients in the Assistive Technology Center at Shepherd Center get help with regaining their mastery of a motor vehicle so they can attain the liberty that everyone needs.
“Driving is probably the pinnacle of independence, freedom and personal satisfaction,” says John Anschutz, manager of the Assistive Technology Center. “It empowers an individual to do what they want to do, and they don’t have to be dependent on alternative transportation or friends. It’s life-changing, and being a part of that is very satisfying.”
The Assistive Technology Center has two functions related to driving: to evaluate clients’ physical capabilities (e.g., eyesight, reaction time, brain function) to see if they are candidates for driving, and to teach clients how to use technology that will assist them in navigating roadways.
Occupational therapist Matt Abisamra is one of the first people clients meet when they visit the Assistive Technology Center. As a driving program supervisor, he evaluates clients’ current level of function and how their disability may affect driving. He then rides with them to see how they do on the open road.
“I look at their vision, their peripheral vision, distance acuity, how their brain interprets what their eyes see,” Abisamra explains. “For example, they might have a problem where they think they are driving in the lane, but they might actually be bumping against the curb.”
He then heads out with the clients and records the whole trip on video. He looks at their awareness of traffic, street signs and intersections. He watches how clients control the vehicle during turns, as well as how they negotiate hills. When they get back, Abisamra shows the video to the client to illustrate what tools may help them drive independently, or sometimes to show them why driving is not a safe option.
Assistive Technology Center client Modou Jawo grew up with polio in Gambia. He had to use crutches to get around, and his legs have never had the strength necessary to operate the pedals of a motor vehicle. The Assistive Technology Center has helped him gain newfound freedom.
“When I went to school, I had to call my wife to ask her to pick me up, but I wanted to be more independent and do things for myself,” Jawo explains. “Learning to drive made me more confident. I always had this dream that I wanted to do things for myself, so I wouldn’t have to rely on anybody.”
There are many different types of controls that can help clients like Jawo drive again. Usually, a client will need a device to help them accelerate and brake. At its simplest, this is a series of levers that connects the pedals to a hand control. The hand control works most commonly by pushing toward the dashboard to brake and pulling back to give it gas. There are also systems that work by twisting a knob or a handle, much like a motorcycle throttle. These can be devised as an electronic system if the client needs help moving those levers.
"For example, we can mount a control at the shoulder so that moving it back and forth can activate the accelerator and brake," Anschutz explains.
Additionally, if a client doesn’t have the full range of motion in their arm or has difficulty grasping the wheel, the Assistive Technology Center can make it smaller, or they can attach another handle to it so the client can nestle their hand into the wheel rather than grasping it. Power steering can also be adjusted so that almost zero effort is required to move the wheel. There might be further adjustments for operating the turn signals, door and window locks, ignition controls and light switches.
When it’s time to train clients to drive, that’s when certified driver rehabilitation specialist James Kennedy goes into action. At the Assistive Technology Center, he uses the client’s first day in the program to help them adjust to him and to the vehicle.
“Most people, when I get them out for the first time, they’re a little scared,” Kennedy says. “I’ve seen people generally panic at the beginning, but by the end they don’t even know what they were worried about.”
Jawo loves the newfound freedom afforded by being in the driver’s seat. “Sometimes when my wife and I go somewhere, I drive,” he says. “Sometimes she drives us in her car, but most of the time we drive in my car because I just like to drive. It just gave me my life back.”
More information on Shepherd Center's Adapted Driving Program is available here or by calling 404-350-7760.
Written by David Terraso
Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, multiple amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. Ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top 10 hospitals for rehabilitation and the best in the Southeast, Shepherd Center treats more than 850 inpatients and 7,600 outpatients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.