Thursday, November 14, 2002

Teaching everyone to drive

Published in the Current

Scarborough’s Bill Kennedy helps physically disabled people learn to drive cars, allowing them to be more independent than they might otherwise be.

Kennedy, who owns and runs Downeast Driving School, uses a wide variety of adaptive equipment to help people drive, even if they can’t use some parts of their bodies.

“I’ve given lots of people driving lessons,” Kennedy said. Some of them are older people who have had a stroke or other medical condition that requires the state to give them another driver’s test.

Others are younger people who have a variety of disabilities that don’t affect their thinking or vision, but may make it more difficult for them to operate a car without additional help and practice.

Kennedy, who also drives a Scarborough school bus, worked for the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles as the supervisor of testing in Southern Maine for 11 years, and gave as many as 500 individual tests each year.

Now he uses that experience in his business, founded 18 months ago. “I do individual lessons to try to get them ready for the road test,” he said.

He said many of the issues he works on with drivers are bad habits, such as cutting left corners too closely. Other times he helps people use specific devices, such as a lever controlling the gas pedal and the brake, to handle the car safely.

“A lot of times what they need is a little boost in confidence,” Kennedy said.

He said some car manufacturers may help pay for equipment required for a disabled person to drive, and cautioned people to be sure their equipment is installed professionally.

Kennedy gives lessons all over the state, and recently drove up to Lewiston to teach a disabled girl to drive there, because her school didn’t have the equipment she needed.

He gets referrals from occupational therapists and also takes his car to a fair showcasing adaptive technology, hosted by Alpha One, a South Portland-based non-profit helping people with independent living.

Sue Grant, an occupational therapist and program director for driver evaluation at Alpha One, said driving is a very important ability for people. “In Maine it makes a huge difference” Grant said.

There is not much public transport, and not much of that is accessible to disabled people. Also, people who live away from bus lines may have a hard time getting to the bus stop.

There are transit arrangements for people who need help getting to and from medical appointments, but those don’t help with groceries or social visits, Grant said.

The Independent Transportation Network serving Greater Portland does offer door-to-door service for a variety of reasons, but only for seniors and people with low vision. That leaves out a lot of people.

Grant sees lots of children with developmental disabilities, but who still have the motor, thinking and visual skills to be able to drive with some adaptive equipment. She also sees people who have driver’s licenses but have recently had a stroke or other medical condition that affects their driving.

Some people in the state, she said, have full-size vans into which they drive their power wheelchairs, and drive the car using a joystick. That can be very expensive. Other modifications, though less expensive, can still be hard to afford.

Medical insurance, Grant said, usually will not cover adaptive driving equipment. “Independent transportation is not a medical necessity,” she said. And while the inability to drive is unlikely to cause injury or death, independence is very important, Grant said.

Lexi Luce, 23, grew up in central Maine where car modifications were not well known, she said. She took driver’s education and driving lessons when she was 16. Because her right side is partially paralyzed, she had an extension put on the gas pedal and drove using both feet, one for the gas and the other for the brake.

When she moved to Portland a little over a year ago, she learned about other modifications that would help her drive using only her left foot and left hand.

She bought a car, had the modifications made, and contacted Kennedy after a recommendation from Grant. After 12 hours or so of driving lessons, Luce got her license in mid-September.

She uses a left-foot gas pedal and a steering knob. “Often people have trouble adapting to a left gas pedal,” Luce said, but because her left side is her dominant side, she had no trouble at all.

Now she drives just about every day, for a wide variety of purposes, and thanks Kennedy for teaching her those skills.