Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Life is a Highway

January 28, 2010 is a day that will live in infamy.

I got my driver’s license. As all of my close friends know, and maybe even some of my online followers/friends at this point, know, this is a HUGE deal.

I am completely excited to have such independence. No more going six days at a time without leaving the house, or waiting until we only have ramen and coffee mate to go grocery shopping, or not having any time by myself to just get away. I can see my friends without making them come all the way out and bring me home. Even though I owe people about three years of being the DD, it is so completely worth it.

It’s been an ongoing process for about 8 years. My sister, who is 16 now, will probably be getting her license shortly too…and I started when I was her age.

Let me back up a little…

I signed up for Driver’s Ed when I was fifteen (the age of driver’s ed.) I wanted to take it with all my peers even though at this time I didn’t have a car. I knew that this would make it challenging for me to get “my hours” in on the road, but after talking to the school they told me to enroll and we would “get the ball rolling.” There was no ball. It did not roll. It came to a screeching halt. Halfway through the class portion, the teacher took me out to sit in her car to “assess” what I might need for adaptations. As one would predict, my legs came to about the end of the driver’s seat and I couldn’t see over the steering wheel.

“Hmm, yea that’s going to be tricky.” She said. And class continued.

After doing some research completely on our own, we located an adaptive driving instructor out of Scarborough (which was a bit out of the way from our house, but we didn’t know what else to do). We were able to hire him, with the help of Voc Rehab and I was able to get my driving hours with him enough to complete driver’s Ed and get my permit!

Hooray!!! One step closer! I was so excited! I bought a purple stuffed Grateful Dead bear to celebrate. I have no idea why I remember that. But he was so cuddly!

After that the goal was to get something I could drive so that I could feel comfortable and take my road test.

At one point there was a scary van that we knew I wouldn’t be able to drive, but we needed something to transport my scooter, so this was already the second scooter van in the picture.

In order to get any adaptations you have to get an “evaluation” to determine what you need, and can use safely, which, duh, makes sense. However, my evaluation seemed to not even really evaluate anything. Once again I sat in a car in which I could not see over the steering wheel, and the hand controls I was supposed to be using were too hard for me to use, so I never even accelerated. I coasted along in a graveyard for about ten minutes. But apparently they saw all they needed to see.

We went inside, and the evaluator explained something about I had issues with the strength in my arms, and it made the most sense that I have hand controls. Really? Read that out loud and tell me how that makes the most sense? I spoke up and inquired about something called pedal extensions, which I had heard of, and figured they must exist! A lot of short people drive!

I was quickly told “they don’t make them that big,” the idea was brushed aside, and hand controls it was.

In addition to hand controls, I ended up with a smaller steering wheel, a remote ramp (which was essential for transporting my scooter which I needed to attend school), and voice command controls off of the steering wheel. Now that concept sounds really cool, like you would say, “Turn on the radio” and it would, but it wasn’t like that at all. Instead, there were two buttons and each button had a list of commands such as “horn, left blinker, right blinker,” etc. and the driver would then have to memorize which button had which commands and when it would be aid (which I don’t think I ever even did)

Maybe for some people this system works, but in most cases, and in mine, it just did not come natural, and certain things like turn signals and horn, when you need them you need them, you can’t be searching for them. Beyond the adaptations, the car itself was possessed by some sort of auto demon. When it would rain the locks would go on and off until the battery died, whether the car was on or not (this also caused the keys to get locked inside it on more than one occasion) and the power steering would just shriek for no good reason and we could never figure out how to turn it off. My parents and the couple of friends who drove this were terrified of it, and because of all the “quirks” it was in the shop more than it was in my driveway. I got pretty comfortable driving, but even when I did, my arms got so tired from the position I needed to drive in I could only get about half way to school.

There was just no way I was going to learn to drive on this thing. I didn’t even want to go near it…Beyond the sheer vanity of not wanting to drive a mini-van, it just wasn’t safe.

In the mean time, my focus was on school, a few years went by and I kept having to renew my permit. I probably have the written test memorized. In case you were wondering- Red means stop.

Fast forward to fall of 2008,

While attending the annual dinner for the Disability Rights Center I met an amazing woman named Sarah who happened to just be an eensy bit shorter than me! And guess what? She had her license! And guess what? She didn’t drive a van, and she had pedal extensions!!!

After the dinner she let me go out and look at her car, and for the first time since this whole debacle began, my feet were on pedals and my hands were on the wheel. It was amazing. She gave me the names of the places she went for her evaluation (which of course was out of state) and the place that did her adaptations.

It was going to happen. It NEEDED to happen.

After concluding I was never going to drive the van, and it really was doing more harm than good, we decided to just start over and let me have a car that I wanted, and that I felt comfortable driving. I was going to have say in this.

First we went for a new evaluation, during which I drove a Honda Element with pedals, and actually turned, and accelerate, and stop at stop signs and get a real driving experience. When it was over it the guy told me confidently that he didn’t see any reason I couldn’t drive with pedal extensions.

We sold the van, to someone who could actually use the adaptations and it was no longer my concern. I was on to look at a car I actually wanted. THE FUN PART. I had looked at cars a little bit online, and one random day when my dad and I were out shopping we went to look. My first choice was the Honda Fit, which were pretty new at this time, but I wanted to check it out. We checked one out and took it for a spin and instantly, I was in love.

It felt RIGHT. Nothing before in my life had ever felt so right. I always read about when people apply to college and how “when you know, you know” and I never had that feeling, about school, or a car or anything. But this. I could see myself in this car.

We continued to shop around, and tried Chevies, and Pontiacs, and even my childhood dream car the VW Beetle, but it just didn’t click. At the same time my parents were looking for a new car and randomly when my parents went to a Honda dealers to look at used SUV’s, I saw a blackberry pearl Honda fit in the lot. I inquired about it, just out of curiosity and the guy told me it was a standard, and it was taken, but they would be getting another shipment within the next week, with an automatic. I knew that was my car.

Sure enough, on June 13th 2008, my 2008 Honda Fit in Blackberry Pearl came off the assembly line and into my driveway. I was pumped! I wanted to drive this. I wanted to call her mine. Even my sister (who had no desire to drive either until she sat in this car) sat, “Wow Mal she really is you in car form!”

The biggest hold up after this was when the car was getting adapted at the wonderful place called Autotronics. They did an amazing job, and I didn’t care that they had her for so long because I knew it wouldn’t have to go back. They even thought of little things like what I wanted my seat to be covered with, and what would work best for getting in and out. They really wanted me to be comfortable and feel like this was MY CAR, not a mass-produced “adapted vehicle”

Finally when all was said and done, all I had for adaptations were a smaller steering wheel, a customized seat, and pedal extensions. Sometimes simpler really is better.

After my car was finally adapted, the hold up was only on me. I was going through a lot of other transitions, with moving and focusing on work, and then there was health stuff, so there was never a time when I could fully focus on driving. When I was ready I would know.

Finally, there was a time when I was surrounded by negative energy way too much. I had no choice because I couldn’t just up and leave. That was the catalyst for me. I needed freedom. I sent Sarah a facebook message asking who taught her to drive with her adaptations. She sent me the info to the place and after a couple of phone calls, it was set. I took driving lessons from about October, with a great guy who really made me feel comfortable. He stayed with me and even took me out right before my test and gave me all the pointers and made me parallel park for an hour outside the DMV.

When the time came, I felt ready! I sat in the car with the examiner, and he made me show him all the basic steps of my car, like how to use the lights, wipers, etc. then we were off. The test lasted all of 23 minutes, and I really thought I would fail (because I was just prepared to not pass on the first time). After what felt like a blink, we pulled back into the parking lot he said, “well you did great, you passed!” And I just went “What!!!?!? Are you serious!?” I almost burst into tears in my car, but I didn’t. I just thanked him profusely and assured him there would be a lot of excited people because of this road test! I told my parents, then I bought myself a Sam’s Caesar wrap and drove home. It’s still surreal.

Although the whole process was frustrating, it was a learning experience in the world of advocacy like so many other things I’ve been through. I think the biggest thing I learned is that, you always have the right to speak up when things don’t feel right, or if you know it’s not the way for you to be successful. I went for a long time believing that these people knew more than me because I had nothing to compare it to, but I could asked for more information on pedal extensions from the beginning and really tried for what I knew was out there. Another thing that really applies to everything is- persistence is key. I could’ve stopped at driver’s ed and said “this is going to be too hard” or just stopped calling people when they didn’t pick up the first time, but this was what I wanted and I knew I had to stick with it.

But the bottom line is that everything happens for a reason. Truly, looking back, there’s no way I was ready to drive when I was 15. If I had gotten my license earlier, who’s to say I wouldn’t have just up and left when I was unhappy at school? Or that I would have been home on weekends to grow so close to my sister and my family? I think it’s very clear to see that it truly happened when it was meant to, and when I knew it was right. 2010 is my year and I can honestly say that I am a licensed driver, with a renewed confidence and the world at my fingertips. Watch out world!


Charlotte said...

Congratulations!!! :-D

evenpar said...

Hey Shorty, (lol). Every once in awhile, my Gratitude Tank starts dipping down towards empty and I need someone to come along and say something to remind me of how lucky I really am and how wonderful life on life's terms can be. You are one of, if not the, most amazing people I have ever known. I am so blessed to have you as my niece. You are such a gift. The world is so much a better place with you in it. Congratulations. I love you!

Katja said...

Congratulations, and happy trails!