So how does a geek on wheels drive anyway?


That has to be a variation on the second most commonly asked question I get. Well come on, the MOST common question is fairly obvious don’t you think? I now have a host of interesting stories tell on my next vacation when that question gets asked over and over again…believe me the real story gets kind of boring after telling it so many times. So then what would be the less obvious second most asked question?   Most often it occurs when someone asks if I need help loading the chair (and no that doesn’t count), or when they see me wheel up to the driver side, while Shannon gets in the passenger side.

“Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind me asking…but you’re in a wheelchair…how do you drive?”

This always makes me laugh when I hear the question asked, usually with that apologetic tone of “I really hate to ask this, cause I don’t want to embarrass you or me but…I’m too curious not to ask…” I never hesitate to show off how it works, though, partly out of being proud of the simplicity of it…and partly to show that we disabled CAN still be independent. It’s important to show it off given that the question invariably is asked with a degree of uncertainty and amazement. I have to say, that all I am about to show you and tell you comes from an amazing source. Shan’s teaching partner is married to a gentleman by the name of Remo Minichiello, who runs a company called Drive Again. It specializes in helping people with disabilities modify their cars, vans or trucks to allow them to drive. He has been able to assist with everything from a partial para, like me, to full on quadriplegics. That’s right…you don’t know it, but you’ve probably been on the road with a full on quad driving beside you. And you needn’t be one bit scared of it. Drive Again helps with the tech, the training and the licensing, and I can’t recommend or thank them and the Minichiello’s enough for their assistance with this.

Ok with that out-of-the-way, how does it work? Well, forgive the bit of shakey pics in some of below (that explanation may be coming soon), but once more, bear with me reader and enjoy the ride.

The system works on a simple handle and lever system that attaches to the brake and accelerator on the car, without ever interfering with their normal operation. Shannon can drive my Dodge Journey without ever touching the hand controls (she’d NEVER do that of course) and they are installed permanently. That is the one downside, in that we can’t just take them out on a whim and put them in another vehicle. I know, I know this is confusing, so let’s show you those shakey pics.

shot of upper controls
shot of upper controls

On first glance the steering wheel might not show you a lot but look closely. You’ll notice a knob attached to the upper right of the steering while. This is the same type bus drivers often use with their extra-large steering wheels, but in my case it’s because I can only use one hand to turn the wheel, so I need something that assists with those full 360 degree turns that won’t leave me fumbling with only my palm on the wheel.  It simplifies the process of spinning the wheel and it can be removed when Shan is driving, so it doesn’t interfere with her operation. And yes if you look really close at the pic I was enjoying some classic Alice Cooper as I was taking those pics…so there.

A closer look at the steering knob
A closer look at the steering knob

The reason why I can only drive with one hand is found to the left of the wheel, with that strange vertical handle off to the side. I’ll explain that in more detail soon, but that is both my brake and my throttle for the accelerator. You can see two rods below the steering wheel that lead down to two pedals. Wait, what is that you say? Accelerator and brake with one simple handle? Yep, it’s that simple. More pics you say? Ok here we go!

It's resting position
It’s resting position
Pull down to accelerate
Pull down to accelerate
Push toward the dash to brake
Push toward the dash to brake

 

It really is that simple. I’ll be honest, if somehow my legs ended up going back to normal I’m not sure I’d want to go back to the normal foot controls. It is such a relaxed and easy way to drive that most of my friends who have tried it want to use my car for long distance trips (Arthur!!!). Now keep in mind that while it is simple in theory, it does take a bit of getting used to. Inevitably when you are first learning to use it, you’ll suffer from muscle memory on the first emergency brake (even when your legs don’t work, you still try to brake with your foot). Reversing can also be a bit confusing at first, as you still have to twist in one direction and brake the same, even when going backward. It is really amazing though how quickly it becomes natural. I first had these controls installed in my 2005 Pontiac Vibe and then transferred the exact same controls to the Journey in 2011. These are, obviously, some of the simplest controls. A full quad needs a MUCH more complex setup that looks almost like a setup you’d find in a fighter jet, but it is just as responsive and safe as normal controls…probably even more so. It is amazing to see quads who can drive with just a few fingers.

There are downsides to it of course…since both hands always have to be on the wheel (which is how we are ALL supposed to drive…RIGHT?!?!?), it can be a challenge having a snack or drink, but it does pretty much preclude using any mobile devices. That sound you hear in the background is Arthur, Bruno, Matt and a few others snickering as they know the tricks I’ve figured out to get around all that…but that isn’t something to post here…cause I would NEVER drive one-handed…nuh uh!

Having these controls has been so important to me since the legs started their downward spiral. It meant I could still have my independence, my freedom and my job! I can still drive to the office on my own, to client, I can shop, I can live life with some semblance of normalcy and not have to rely on Shan or our families to take me everywhere. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to continue my work and I’m sure by now Shan would have strangled me (with a proper plan executed with the assistance of ALL my friends and family, there would be alibis galore!). I am extremely fortunate that I am able to do this, and we know that more mods will come in the future. The Journey is great for loading the chair without having to put down any seats, but it loads in the back, not the side. That may turn into an issue down the road (awww so punny) but we’ll cross that bridge when it lowers…ok honestly, I’ll stop.

So there you go…how does a para or a quad drive themselves anyway? Quite well thank you very much. I always do love showing off these controls…and proving what we can do when you have the resources available to you. And if you know anyone interested in this type of setup, contact me and I’ll get you in touch with Drive Again.

 

 

 

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