In the minds of many drivers who are disabled, driving is considered to be a gift. In reality, it can often be an expensive undertaking that requires a modified vehicle of some type with a price tag that might exceed $50,000. While it is true that some people requiring such accommodations may be able to drive with a fairly minimum investment of a few hundred dollars for a set of hand controls, the joy of being able to travel freely in one’s own vehicle — even if only as a passenger — can make that investment worthwhile, no matter what the cost. In order to find out why, we conducted an informal survey of a few individuals who shared what they considered to be their best day of driving, even if that drive extended beyond a day. Their responses varied, but a few common themes emerged.

Many people who become paralyzed as adults have previous driving experience and long to get back behind the wheel. Perhaps that is why NM columnist Allen Rucker, a para due to transverse myelitis from Southern California, feels that his first day of driving solo with hand controls — which was also the day that he passed his driving test — produced the best drive of his life.
Soon after being released from rehab, Rucker began the process of returning to the road by taking driving lessons from a certified trainer. “I initially found it very hard to get the hang of it,” he says, “as I am not only mobility-challenged but also coordination-challenged, which is a debilitating condition not mentioned in the ADA.”

JR Harding doesn’t let the inevitable breakdown ruin his roadtrips.

JR Harding doesn’t let the inevitable breakdown ruin his roadtrips.

Rucker’s preparation allowed him to pass his driving test on the first try; according to the driving examiner, that was unusual. “She told me most people just show up with their hand controls installed but have never used them,” according to Rucker, “and she showed me a huge hole in a nearby hedge that someone had driven through because he hit the accelerator instead of the brake. He failed the test.”

That initial reintroduction to driving with hand controls was a great experience for Rory Calhoun as well, an outdoor recreation specialist who works in Olympia, Washington. “I really enjoyed the occasion, my first time after becoming paraplegic, when I got to drive the rehab department’s car and realized I had a level of independence coming soon, so I wasn’t going to need to rely on someone to help me out,” he says. “After getting my 4×4 Blazer fitted with hand controls and leaving the rehab center, I was free and never looked back.”

As someone who loves and works in the outdoors, Calhoun, unsurprisingly, puts off-road driving at the top of his list of favorite types of drives. Something as simple as being able to pull off at a viewpoint and control his view from the driver’s seat is a liberating feeling.

When Jesse Case, a T7 para from Western Washington, thinks of best drives, it usually includes having something hooked to the back of his Dodge pickup truck. He and his family enjoy camping, and he hauls an accessible camping trailer to interesting destinations throughout the summer. Surprisingly, what he considers to be one of his best drives was a multi-day trip to 29 Palms, California, to deliver his daughter’s car that was towed behind the pickup.

Riding in the back of a van is a common occurrence for many people who use wheelchairs. That is required when using public transportation options like paratransit, airport shuttles, taxis and rideshare services. The drawbacks are many, as restricted vision out the side windows and the inability to see traffic lights and road signs ahead detract from the joy of travel. For Sheri Denkensohn-Trott, a C4 quad from Arlington, Virginia, the design of her first van, a full-sized 1983 Ford Econoline, required her to ride in the back of it. Being lift-transferred in and out of the van without having to leave her wheelchair was nice, but the lack of vision and control was frustrating.

When she purchased her next van, six years later, it was a minivan that allowed her to roll into the front passenger position and simply lock into place with an EZ lock device. What did that change mean? As she puts it: “Liberation! I faced forward, was able to see out of the windows at the normal height and, most importantly, I had control. I was not the driver, but being co-pilot was fabulous, and it continues to be a source of joy and independence.”

Remarkable People, Surprising Opportunities

When Mary McKnew decided to travel from her home in Washington, D.C., to Miami, Florida, to attend an annual meeting of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association (now United Spinal Association), she decided on including some friends. McKnew is paraplegic, and the three friends that accompanied her included another high incomplete para and a quad. Since the four friends did not have much money at the time, it was decided that the best way to reach the annual meeting was to take a road trip. They managed to load the three wheelchairs into and onto her hand control-equipped Mercury Cougar sedan and set off on the drive, straight through to Miami.

Jesse Case’s best drives are usually in a pick-up truck.

“We took turns driving,” she said, “and I took the first shift. When it came time to spell me, I simply climbed over the seat so that I could sleep in back.” That method of changing drivers became the norm, as they would not need to transfer into wheelchairs to make the switch. It also provided some of the most amusing experiences on the trip, as the other drivers were not as flexible and strong as McKnew but managed to clamber over the seats in their own style. “That method of transferring between seats may be ill-advised,” she admits, “but everyone was eventually successful in doing it. The entire trip turned out to be a lot of fun.”

The ability to drive can sometimes override the frustrations of breakdowns and similar events that can happen on a road trip. For JR Harding, a quad from Tallahassee, plans for a weeklong getaway at a resort about 120 miles away hit a snag part way to the destination. Harding was driving his full-sized Ford van, loaded with everything needed for the week, accompanied by his caregiver. “While refueling the vehicle, about 25 miles from my destination, the fuel pump on the van went out,” he said, “and I found myself stranded in Apalachicola, a historic fishing town located in the panhandle of Florida.”

Not to be deterred by the breakdown, Harding called the manager at the resort destination, who drove the 25 miles and loaded everything that had been in the van into the back of his pickup truck. That included the wheelchair. Harding got to ride in the cab of the truck. Other events that day included finding a local mechanic who did the repair at a reasonable cost and delivered the van to the resort a few days later, getting catheterized in the middle of a parking lot with passersby looking on, and actually arriving at the destination ahead of his wife and mother who had been traveling in a separate car due to the amount of supplies that were in the van.

Was the trip a success? “It was quite a day! Without the help of the park manager and the local mechanic, we would not have had a spectacular holiday without worries,” according to Harding, “but sometimes there are simply remarkable people in everyday life, and in everyday places.”

Astrid Gallagher says she has driven across the United States about 50 times in her 81 years, all while seated in her power wheelchair. Gallagher is non-ambulatory due to post-polio syndrome and, while she can use the foot controls in her Ford Econoline van, the vehicle is equipped with hand controls.

The 2010 trip from her home in Arroyo Grande, California, to Washington, D.C., has a special meaning to her, as a side trip provided her with a new experience that she hadn’t considered possible in the past. Approaching Utah, she noticed a sign for the Bonneville Salt Flats and decided to check it out. The salt flats seemed busy, with racers testing all types of vehicles. She asked someone who appeared to be in charge if she could give it a try, and they approved.

The 75-year-old Gallagher headed out on the track in her large van, with its comparatively puny 302 cubic inch engine, and accelerated as quickly as she could. “At 95 mph the van started shimmying,” she says, “so I turned around. I was very happy. The salt caked underneath my van lasted for several days, getting plenty of weird looks.”

The looks might have shown even more amazement if people had known how Gallagher managed to accumulate the salt in the first place. Best drives are like that. You never know when they’re coming or under what circumstances.