Having been born with cerebral palsy, Marta Kurkimaki, 20, and Krystyn Derks, 19, both knew there was a chance they would never be able to get behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Cerebral palsy is a condition when muscle movements and posture is affected due to brain damage. For both ladies, the condition affects the left side of their bodies. Kurkimaki's condition is more severe than Derks', but both need the assistance of specialized equipment to help them steer their vehicles.
Luckily, they found that help through the Driver Assessment Rehabilitation Service (DARS), a program run through Health Sciences North that provides assessment and rehabilitation for people who are facing challenges in their ability to operate a motor vehicle. The goal is to ensure as many clients as possible can safely continue driving or have their driving privileges reinstated.
DARS clients are referred by their physician, when a change in their medical condition requires notification of the Ministry of Transportation under the Highway Traffic Act. Clients already under a licence suspension for medical reasons may also be referred to DARS.
It's also designed for people born with disabilities, like Kurkimaki and Derks, who may require extra training and devices installed in their vehicles to aid them in their driving. Depending on the client's assessment, DARS develops a personalized rehabilitation program which can include on-the-road sessions with a certified driving instructor.
“I knew I would need something (to help me drive); my left arm is a lot different, and I tried different things with the signal light, because it's on the left side of the steering wheel,” Kurkimaki said, in reference to the fact the cerebral palsy affects her left side.
The 20-year-old has been involved with DARS for more than a year. She now uses a specialized nob on her steering wheel that lets her drive only with her right hand. Her signals lights and high beams are operated via the nob.
“My dad tried to teach me (how to drive) without the use of any devices, but it was hard to do the turns, and my left hand wasn't able to help me,” she said. “Reg (Fitchett, of Valley Driver Training) gave me some cool information and tools to help me. It was great knowing that I'd be able to get some of my freedom back.”
In fact, it was Fitchett who told Derks about the program.
“On my 16th birthday, I wanted to be able to drive just like all my friends, and my parents told me I could do whatever I wanted to do, and if I wasn't able to do it, then they would find a way to make it happen,” she said. “I didn't know about the program until I started my driver-training course, where I met Reg, and he told me about it.”
Through her assessment, it was determined that all she needed was a basic nob for her steering wheel, but the freedom that comes with the ability to drive by herself is anything but basic.
“I love it,” she said. “I have my own car now, and I'm able to go to work and do whatever I want.”
Fitchett said people of varying abilities are trained to use the the adaptive devices prescribed through DARS.
“People use the driving methods they've had their entire lives, and all of a sudden things change, and they now have to learn a new system,” he said. “We've been reasonably successful in teaching clients to use those new technologies.”
Interestingly, it was a vehicle in Sudbury that had the very first left-side gas pedal installed in Canada, he said.
Training can take any number of hours, depending on the person, he said. Or, the client can pick up on it very quickly, and it may take only half an hour.
Before a person can get behind the wheel of a vehicle by themselves, they must first go through an assessment. That task falls to occupational therapists like Vicki Uguccioni.
“Basically, we assess whether it's safe for a client to drive,” Uguccioni said. “Clients of all ages are referred to us through their physician if there are concerns about a medical condition, a physical disability or a cognitive issue. We want to try and help people maintain their mobility and independence as much as possible.”
Since 2005, about 500 clients have been assessed through the program, she said. Most have been cleared to drive, but that is heavily dependent on the diagnosis.
For example, in the case of an amputation, it could be something as simple as installing a nob on the steering wheel. In other cases, when there are cognitive issues or other issues that affect such things as decision-making abilities, it may require more work, and the chances of being cleared for driving are reduced.
She also said it's unfortunate that there are still many people on the road who have a medical condition, but who refuse to seek an assessment for fear of losing their driving privilege.
“Often, that's not the case,” Uguccioni said. “With the right assistance, many people can maintain their driving privileges or have them reinstated.”
Since its inception, the percentage of clients retaining their driving privileges are: 100 per cent for paraplegia, fractures and amputation; 93 per cent for acquired brain injury; 85 per cent for multiple sclerosis; 70 per cent for cerebral vascular accident and stroke; 66 per cent for vision waiver; and 22 per cent for dementia-related conditions.
“If people with disabilities want to drive, this is definitely something they want to look into,” Kurkimaki said. “It's a great feeling. When you have a disability, you tend to think you can't do the same things as everyone else, but this program offers an outlet that leads to a more normal life.
“You're life will always be different, but it's a great feeling knowing you'll be able to at least drive on your own.”
Posted by Arron Pickard