Driving has been on my mind, pretty much since I was 17 when it became legal to learn. I remember in sixth Form people would show off their new cars and race each other down to McDonald’s at lunch time. At 17 learning to drive wasn’t really one of my main priorities, A levels and bigger life dilemmas seemed to take over at this age for me. A few years later some friends convinced me that I should think about driving and to apply for a provisional licence, when I started going to pubs and not getting served, (I still have this problem now too!) I realised that I should probably apply for a provisional to use as ID. At this stage I didn’t declare my Dyspraxia on the form because I was still very much in denial and confused about who I was, I didn’t want the DVLA poking around my life too. Driving wasn’t remotely on my agenda then anyway, getting through a university course seemed more important- I just wanted it to be able to buy beer! A few years later, in my early 20’s my mum waved an article written about driving with Dyspraxia under my nose and suggested that I should read it, but in my stubborn ways I refused and hid the article that she’d printed out for me, I wasn’t ready to face up to the realities that at this point I realised deep down would never go away or to accept myself and my differences.
The one word that comes up over and over again in my own life and in other peoples too, as I’ve seen from twitter and Facebook is driving, and in some cases complete lack of sense of direction. The ability to drive is an advantage that people often take for granted- and a skill that many of us will either really struggle to learn or will never be able to do. I held off from the driving dilemma for so long because I didn’t want anyone to tell me that I wouldn’t be able to do something, I understand the need for the DVLA to make sure you’re safe behind a wheel, but so far I have pretty much done everything (to some degree) that I was told I wouldn’t be able to do, I didn’t want to be hear ‘you won’t’ and ‘drive’ in the same sentence. I was also terrified of the prospect of driving, partly due to being in two car accidents when I was younger and my genuine fear of roads, brought on by crossing a road being like trying to swim through a sea of sharks.
I’ve had to turn down many work (and sometimes) social commitments because I don’t have a car to get there. Even if there is good public transport, I’ve found that I would often have to spend most of my day travelling (and getting lost.) Most people have been generally lovely about my lack of driving ability or car, although I do get the odd question to the effect of “why the hell haven’t you learned to drive yet?” and as a taxi driver recently put it “I think that you should drive, so that you can enjoy your life more” I didn’t realise (until he pointed it out) that life was so much more enjoyable with a car, I just assumed that it was more expensive and more stressful, but I could be wrong of course. Then there’s the slight issue of his business logic, not really being logical at all- but I’ll leave that there for now. Apart from a couple of job interviews that I didn’t get, that I’m convinced was because I don’t have a driving licence, everyone’s been pretty understanding, by offering precise directions where necessary, (although I have been told: “Second exit at the roundabout”, when I had to politely explain that I wasn’t planning on walking across a roundabout) the occasional lifts and sometimes rescuing me when I get stranded on unfamiliar public transport. (I once had an almost disaster with the trams in Manchester.)
One of the best things I’ve done recently, that has helped the ‘I need to be more independent issue’ and to be more able to say yes to work in small villages in the middle of Northumberland (like the one I was at yesterday) with no decent public transport links, or that will often cost more than I’m paid to be there, is to apply for a government funded scheme called Access to work. I’m slightly dubious of anything with the words ‘government’ and ‘funded in the name, especially since my recent ordeal with applying for Personal Independent Payment, and even more so after watching the Dispatches documentary that was aired on channel 4 last night. In comparison to the demoralising and demeaning tactics used by the DWP when often vulnerable people apply for PIP, the process of applying for Access to Work seemed fairly pain free and helpful. I kept waiting for them to be difficult and unhelpful, but this moment never came. I can only conclude, that this is because they want to keep people in work, to reduce their unemployment statistics (you don’t need a degree in politics to know this of course, but I like to think that my degree comes in useful sometimes…) I eventually made the phone call, and spoke to a friendly sounding lady to make my initial claim (with my mum on stand by just in case she got difficult- she didn’t.) After this call all they required was a letter from my doctor explaining that my sense of direction isn’t much better than that of a sheep and that I can easily get lost walking along a straight road, and confirmation from my employer that I actually work there. I was then approved a certain amount of journeys a week and a budget that I can spend on each journey (based on quotes I received from taxi company’s.) The only difficulty I’ve encountered is trying to explain the nature of my job, and that I don’t work 9-5 in the same building, but I think they’re slowly starting to understand that I move around a lot. Since I applied for Access to Work, my working day has been made drastically easier and I’ve noticed the anxiety decrease considerably. It’s been wonderful and a real life changer, that I can now accept work and not worry about how I’m going to get there. The only awkward moments I’ve encountered so far is when taxi drivers ask me for directions (if anyone’s ever been in a car with me, you’ll know that’s probably best avoided) but I’ve learned that being armed with postcodes for their sat nav is the best solution going. I’d really urge anyone thinking about applying for Access to Work, to apply- the experience isn’t as stressful as you might think, and can really help to make things that bit easier.
So back to driving… I finally got around to declaring my Dyspraxia and Nystagmus to the DVLA and started taking the idea of driving more seriously than ever before. I realised that I had to get assessed for driving, so that I could be given a final yes or no on the matter, and rid myself of all the driving related unanswered questions. I contacted an organisation called Drive Mobility and spent what seemed like a lifetime on their waiting list, but was probably more like two years. A few weeks ago I was finally invited in for an assessment, so started thinking about driving again, and all thoughts that had previously been pushed from my mind came racing back. I was apprehensive, I’d never driven a car before and my biggest fear was crashing on the driving part of the assessment, I was also worried about what they would say- would I be destined to rely on others for lifts forever? I pondered during my frequent sleepless nights.
On the day of the assessment, I had a banana for breakfast (brain food to prevent crashes that I feared were inevitable) and headed off to the centre with my dad. On the way there he reassured me that all of the cars would be dual controlled and I wouldn’t crash- I still didn’t believe him though.
At the centre, we waited at reception for the two people who would carry out my assessment, one who specialises in the driving side and the other who dealt with the medical stuff. I smiled. “A great big smile, that’s what we like to see” an equally smiley man said, as I greeted them both at the door. They had the kind of persona and presence that immediately reassures you. (pretty crucial if your job is to test people’s driving ability I thought)
During the first part of my assessment, I sat in a room with a lovely lady named Pearl, and the driving advisor keith. The first part of the test involved reading a number plate at twenty meters, of which I passed with ‘flying colours’ apparently. Passing this part of the assessment meant that everything could continue. She then asked me lots of questions about my diagnoses and how I think they affect me. From the word go, I was just really honest. I explained my difficulties with spatial awareness, depth perception, coordination and sense of direction. I also mentioned how I sometimes struggle with crossing roads and my tendency to freak out at every passing car because I can’t judge distances. She listened intently and wrote this all down on a computer. She also asked me what I expected from the day; “well I’d like to know if I can ever drive, but I know that I’m either going to get a no you should never be behind a wheel or a yes, but it will take you millions of years” “It’s good that you’ve got some perspective on the situation” she replied.
I was then asked to perform various tests that were there to test my ability to drive safely; cognitive, spatial and physical skills. I was asked to name five words, and then to remember them a few minutes later; which I succeeded to do. I was slightly amused when she showed me some pictures of a camel, elephant and a cow, asking me to name them. I was unsure how knowing the difference between a cow and a camel would help me with driving, but I went along with it. I was also given a slight maths test when I had to subtract 7 from 100 and then keep going until she told me to stop, pretty easy you’d think but not when you feel under pressure and your maths ability doesn’t really exist. After a brief flash back to maths lessons at school, I proceeded with the counting on your fingers under the desk technique, hoping she didn’t notice. I was then asked to draw a 3D box, it was a slight variation to the one I was given to copy, but she seemed happy with it. All of those years drawing in my dads art studio had clearly paid off. Pearl then asked me to draw an analogue clock and set the time, which worried me for a moment- so I made sure it was clear that asking me to do this wasn’t going to happen, as I have never actually learned to read an analogue clock. This is due to the combination of awful teachers around the years when learning to tell the time became crucial and my own fear/inability with maths. We compromised and I drew a clock face without having to set the time. During the physical part of the assessment she asked me to move my arms around to ensure that I had full movement. She also asked me to touch my nose and then her finger (this prompted another flashback moment to childhood) but I managed to perform this task well, only missing her finger a few times. Finally she asked me to stand up, put my feet together and close my eyes, I often struggle with the standing up exercises in Pilates so you can probably imagine what happened here (if not I can draw you a picture.) I waited for a moment while they went into the other room to discus me moving onto the driving part of assessment, I was fully expecting them to say no, but they didn’t…
On their return Keith lead me out to a car I would be driving on their own internal track- I was too terrified and I thought too Dyspraxic to go on the road. They did ask me if I’d like to drive on the road but I said that since I’ve never been in a car before and as new things tend to worry me (being in the drivers seat of a car for the first time being a pretty big one) that I’d prefer to stay on their track, and this was fine. It was recommended that I tried both a manual and automatic car, I started with the manual. As we got into the car he told me to turn the engine on, he started by controlling the pedals and all I had to do is steer. “Ah we’re moving!” I pointed out as we rolled forward. He smiled, probably just humouring me. I managed to steer around a corner without crashing into any parked cars, people or birds- this pleased me. He taught me how to steer using something called the pull push method, which got me very muddled and tangled up. I was fine when I was doing it my way, so in the end he just left me to it, when he saw that concentrating on my arms caused too much confusion. Once I’d got to grips with steering (to a fashion) we moved onto the gears, clutch and then the brake. I managed to change gears with ease- we were mostly in second. I learned how to get enough ‘bite’ out of the clutch and was given the analogy of waiting for the car to rumble. Once you hear the car rumble, you know you’ve pressed the clutch peddle enough. I only stalled a few times, so I reckon I’d got the rumbling down to a fine art. The next part of my lesson was to learn about the brake, I quickly realised that braking too hard would give both us and the resident fly whiplash. I was briefly reminded of the fly in a car question; ‘Does a fly inside a car go along as fast as you, and why doesn’t it splat against the windscreen?’ I recall someone who’s into physics giving us a scientific answer to this question, but like most technical scientific things it went over my head. I’m just amused about a fly struggling to keep up with a car. To avoid whiplash and braking too sharp, I was told to imagine that there is an egg between my foot and the brake, and that I wanted this egg for my tea- so I had to press lightly on the egg to avoid smashing it. It worked, and the egg remained intact (most of the time.)
Once I began to feel more comfortable in a car, I started to use the accelerator. “You can accelerate now” he said “ah not that much!” I didn’t realise how sensitive an accelerator can be and I think in turn this amused Keith. He was amused with me the whole time I reckon, I noticed that he was also eating many mints- possibly to calm his nerves. After I drove up and down the track for a bit, accelerating where necessary and trying not to smash my egg, he asked me to pull over so that I could have a go in an automatic. As there was no clutch I didn’t have to wait for the car to rumble but this moment of disappointment passed fairly quickly. He asked me what the letters on the gear stick mean, “D means drive, and R means roundabout!” I said without thinking and partly to be a bit daft. He giggled, and told me that I’d drive any driving instructor up the wall. I took this as a compliment. (R does in fact mean reverse in case you hadn’t worked that out.) I put the car into D, and tootled around in the automatic for a bit, until he decided that I was going to do an emergency stop. The thought of this excited and terrified me in equal measure. I was going to try very hard to not drive through the hedge ahead I’d decided. I started to accelerate faster, and faster- in reality I was only doing 15 miles an hour but it felt much more than this. He suddenly shouted “STOP” and I practised my newly learned brake skills. “If I was wearing a wig, it would be on the floor” he told me, which roughly translates as ‘you did very well’ The last part of the driving assessment, once we and the resident fly had recovered from the emergency stop was to reverse into a parking space. I was slightly dubious about being able to do this, but I dived into the challenge. I put the car into ‘R’ and successfully managed to guide the car in between the two white lines. My lack of spatial awareness didn’t seem to be a massive issue here, I was probably more cautious because of this, but I made it safely into the parking space.
After the assessment we left the car to go back inside, I felt a mixture of relief, happiness and ‘oh my god did I really just do that’ Keith offered me a celebratory mint. Once inside, we met with Pearl for a debrief and the verdict. They asked me how I found the driving exercise, I told them that It was more exciting than I thought it would be, they said that I’d done well and had covered more than most people would in a first driving lesson. Then the verdict came- their professional opinion was that there wasn’t anything medical or safety wise that would stop me from learning to drive. I also had the option of either learning in a manual or an automatic, whatever suits me- they didn’t make any recommendation on this front other than that it would take longer in a manual. I knew that it will possibly take me a long time anyway, so hearing this came as no surprise- but it’s nice to have driving as a maybe option, even if it won’t happen for several years. They recommended to start learning to drive in a manual car, and then if there were any specific problems to change to an automatic. As we left I thanked them for their time and patience with me; “Our pleasure- it’s been entertaining” I’m guessing they’ll not be forgetting me any time soon…
My experience of being assessed for driving has been an entirely positive one, I felt reassured throughout, despite at times being pretty bemused by some of the tasks they asked me to do. I also feel that some of my fears that I had about driving have been resolved. It still scares me, but I am getting better- finally getting in a car and having a go, really did wonders for my confidence. It really is worth it, to anyone thinking about getting assessed for driving, it didn’t cost me a penny as it’s on the NHS and has given me the tools to move forward with learning to drive, building up my independence and the list things that I can do. The key now, is to find a good driving instructor who’s understanding, has the patience to give me time to process information and can work around my way of doing things. I was given a list of approved instructors at my assessment who are experienced with working with people with disabilities, so this gives me hope that I can find someone who will be able to help me make driving a reality. After years of thinking about driving, I’m finally a step closer to actually getting there.
As mentioned everywhere on my twitter/Facebook/previous blog posts. I’ve recently had an NDA nomination. If you’d like to vote for me for positive role model for disability in the National Diversity awards, you can do so here: https://nominate.nationaldiversityawards.co.uk/nominate/endorse/29906
And a massive THANK YOU to everyone who has already voted for me, you really have made my day/week/year.