Accessing the Open Road

I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was almost twenty-one, and until I did, I couldn’t go more than a couple months without someone asking me about it. “When are you going to learn how to drive?” “Have you thought about driving?”

Learning to drive—and mastering the rules of the road—was difficult for me as someone with sensory processing disorder. I had trouble figuring out how close my car was to other cars and whether they were parked or in motion, and I waited way too long to turn, certain that I was going to get hit by oncoming traffic.

Driving shouldn’t be seen as a one-size-fits-all indicator of adulthood and independence, especially when there are still so many barriers to disabled people learning how to drive. There are plenty of disabled and nondisabled people who can’t drive or don’t want to, but there are also many of us who want to get our licenses but can’t.

Alex Haagaard, a disabled writer and activist near Toronto, Canada, has been advised by doctors not to get their license because they have narcolepsy. Alex works one day a week teaching, and the drive is a five or six hour commute, round trip, from their home. “As someone dealing with chronic pain and fatigue, this is exhausting,” they said. “I could not manage this more than one or two days per week at most.”

Self-driving cars are just one example of how technology can help bridge this gap. We’re also making headway with vehicles that can self-park. A friend of mine who has sensory processing issues has a backup camera in his car so he knows how much room he has behind the car; I use a GPS app on my phone because my sensory processing disorder means I’m terrible with directions. The problem, of course, is the prohibitive cost of many technological advances like self-driving vehicles. Even my iPhone costs me around $80 a month. It’s important to increase access—self-driving cars and other technology should be designed with cost effectiveness and disabled people at the forefront.

Grace Lapointe, a writer who works in Boston, quit her high school driver education class when she realized it didn’t suit her needs as someone with cerebral palsy. After college, she tried to set up an adaptive driving evaluation through the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, but was told she’d have to travel to Connecticut because there was a lack of resources and demand in Massachusetts.

“It would be easy if you had these services locally and could come back for multiple adaptive lessons as they suggested,” says Grace, who opted not to participate in lessons. “It would be virtually impossible to keep coming from out of state.” Grace says that affordable vehicle adaptations, appropriate instruction, and an accessible evaluation would help her learn how to drive, so she wouldn’t need to rely on friends, family, and paratransit.  

It’s important that programs designed to help give disabled people access to driving actually be accessible; that they’re easy enough to get to, and affordable to a wide range of people.

If we’re looking toward technological advances as a solution for disabled people who want to drive, we need programs similar to SafeLink Wireless that will provide access to this technology (like self-driving or adaptive vehicles) to financially disadvantaged disabled people free or at a lower cost, for everything from smaller adaptive features to an entirely self-driving vehicle.

Disabled people don’t always drive—and for those who don’t, accessible and useful public transportation is critical—but we should be given equal access to the opportunity.

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Alaina Leary is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. Her work has been published in New York Times, Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, The Oprah Magazine, Healthline, and more. She lives with her wife and two cats in Boston. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @alainaskeys.