Like many 17 years olds, I was keen to learn to drive as soon as I had my birthday - says Philippa Willitts, of Sheffield
When I learned the skills associated with driving, I was able-bodied and excited for adulthood.
I also gained a sense of responsibility towards other drivers and pedestrians on the road as I improved, giving me a new sense of freedom and independence, which is so important at that age.
However, even though I passed my test (second time lucky!), I only drove for a few more years before moving to Sheffield, which has such good public transport that having a car felt unnecessary. Some years later, as I became physically disabled with a neurological condition and chronic pain, I knew that starting to drive again would help with shopping, getting around and socialising. It turned out that it would also help with work, too.
But I was a bit wary – it had been more than ten years since I’d last been at the wheel of a car and I did not know if I was still able to do it. Having some refresher lessons made sense; I would be able to practise driving with a qualified companion who could point me in the right direction and help me to remember what used to come so naturally. Also, the instructor would have dual controls, which helped my anxiety a lot!
Learning to drive while disabled
Another reason that it felt important to have refresher lessons was that I was unsure how my physical disability would affect my ability to drive. Would my wrists be strong enough to change gears? How would my feet feel on the pedals? Some people need cars with adaptations or instructors who are experienced in working with people with specific impairments, for instance.
Understandably, many people are afraid that their disability will prevent them from driving. In fact, as I discovered, the government and DVLA provide advice to help people work through problems, and other organisations also exist to help people find a way forward.
My instructor was kind and patient – essential qualities in that job – and helped me to quickly find that I was still capable of driving. It was exciting. I was back on the road!
For anyone out there with a disability who might be thinking of learning to drive, I’d say get in touch with an instructor and perhaps even an insurer. They will both be able to help you understand what your options are and guide you through the process.
Driving and my career
As someone who is self-employed and works from home, I did not expect that owning a car would be of special importance to my working life, but I was wrong. Whether it’s the day I spend at a co-working space, or regular networking meetings with other local business people, having my own wheels makes all the difference.
This is particularly the case for me because walking is difficult, so public transport is less useful, appealing or convenient. With my own car, I’m free from having to order taxis everywhere and can get to places independently, which has helped my confidence as well as my business.
The benefit of a blue badge
Being able to walk long distances is a challenge for me, so being a blue badge holder is a great help. While the exemption from pay-and- display charges is nice, as is being able to park on double yellows (under certain conditions), the real benefit is the ability to park close to where I’m going. Whether that’s on-street outside a client’s office, the supermarket or a café, parking close by can mean the difference between being able to attend meetings and events or catching up with friends and havingto stay at home.
Helpful tech and the driverless future
While I do enjoy being able to drive, I’m very interested in what the future of driving technology has in store. With a multitude of driving apps already showing us where we can park and YouTube videos showing us how to reverse park, technology is certainly already a help to any driver. Most excitingly, perhaps, is the advent of driverless cars. People may soon have a way to get around without the need for a driving licence or lessons. Driverless cars might deliver and extend independence in a dramatic way to all sorts of people.
While they are still undergoing stringent tests and development, when these cars become more commercially available, either for individuals to own or as a taxi service, the potential for disabled people is really exciting. Will blind people be able to have their own driverless cars and get around unassisted? Will people whose physical impairments limit them be able to programme directions into a vehicle and be driven there? Maybe I could hop into a driverless Uber and have a conference call with a client or write an article en route!
While I wouldn’t mind getting into a driverless car, many people might find it a frightening prospect. A perceived lack of control, especially when we’re used to having control over our cars, could be a powerful disincentive to use one. However, by the time they are ready for widespread personal use, the safety features on driverless cars will hopefully be incredibly advanced and cater for everyone’s needs regardless of ability. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see! In the meantime, learning to drive, and having a refresher course gave me the freedom to get on the road, stay in closer touch with friends and family, and build up my business.
Visit Adrian Flux’s website for details.