Driving Toward Independence
Shepherd Center’s Adaptive Driving Program helps people with disabilities get back on the road.
For most people, the ability to drive means much more than just a way to get from point A to point B. It means convenience, opportunity and most of all — independence. Just ask Ben Elstad.
“Imagine not being able to drive independently or having to count on other people or public transportation to go anywhere,” says Ben, a U.S. Army veteran who sustained a C-4 incomplete spinal cord injury in a car crash in 1989. “Public transportation isn’t always reliable, and I didn’t want to inconvenience my family and friends by asking them to drive me everywhere I needed to go.”
Fortunately, Shepherd Center’s Adaptive Driving Program, which is part of the Assistive Technology Center, aims to help drivers like Ben remain independent while keeping them and other drivers safe. The adapted driving team, consisting of certified driver rehabilitation specialists, including a certified driving educator and two occupational therapists, helps clients evaluate, understand and use available transportation options while also addressing safety and accessibility issues after experiencing a loss in mobility.
When clients first come to Shepherd Center Adaptive Driving Program in Atlanta, they undergo an in-center evaluation, typically lasting three hours. The first hour-and-a-half is a clinical assessment of the client’s arms, legs, vision, cognition and balance for driving. The last hour-and-a-half is an on-road assessment.
“We begin by evaluating clients’ physical capabilities like eyesight, reaction time and brain function,” says Matt Abisamra, OTR/L, CDRS, the driving program supervisor. “We also look at their current level of function and how their disability may affect driving.”
Next, it’s time to hit the road. Abisamra takes clients out on the road and films the entire trip. He looks at their awareness of traffic, street signs and intersections. He also assesses how clients negotiate turns and hills. When they complete the assessment, 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. If the team determines a client can continue moving forward with driving, training can begin with one of Shepherd Center’s driver specialists.
“At Shepherd Center, they have seven practice vehicles to use, so I would do two hours of training in the morning and two hours more in the afternoon several times a week,” Ben says. “I was a little nervous at first, but the longer I was driving, the smoother and more confident I got. The team was amazing and really inspired confidence.”
Program specialists provide information on obtaining a driver’s license, purchasing modified vehicles and using adaptive equipment. Then, if the client purchases their own adaptive vehicle, the team at the Adaptive Driving Program goes to work making recommendations to outfit the vehicle with any adaptations needed and then orients the client with their new purchase.
For example, clients may need a device to help them accelerate and brake. This can be a levers that connects the pedals to a hand control, where the hand control works most commonly by pushing toward the dashboard to brake and pulling back to give it gas. These can be devised as an electronic system if the client needs help moving those levers.
For clients who have minimal function in their upper body, the team at the Adaptive Driving Program can offer recommendations for advanced technological solutions, like a joystick, touchpad controls, and brake and steering wheel modifications. Ben, who recently purchased his own vehicle, benefitted from Shepherd Center’s access to the most technologically advanced driving systems on the market.
“I have quadriplegia, and I have limited use of my arms and hands, but I can still drive,” Ben explains. “I have the highest level of high-tech driving controls and use a joystick to drive.”
While a doctor’s referral is required before scheduling an appointment for Shepherd Center’s adaptive driving services (a doctor’s order requesting a PT/OT driving evaluation is sufficient), it is not required that a client be an existing Shepherd Center patient. The Adaptive Driving Program is open to anyone who needs to be evaluated for safe driving. That includes people with spinal cord or brain injuries, as well as those who have cognitive, behavioral or physical disabilities or concerns related to aging.
“When we hear from patients and community members, one of the main things they want to continue doing or get back to doing is driving independently,” Abisamra says. “It opens their world up beyond their homes so that they can continue doing the things they love.”
And Ben is living, driving proof.
“Now, I can get into my car and go get groceries when I want to,” Ben says. “I can drive myself to the state park and push myself around on the trails to exercise on my own. I can drive to my daughter’s house to meet my second grandchild. I can visit friends and do anything anyone else can do. Getting this ability back has been a life-changing experience. It’s freeing.”
For more information, visit shepherd.org/driving or call 404-350-7760.
By Kerry Ludlam
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.