Many quads will feel that independence is impossible without a car. So it is important to work hard to learn to drive, transfer, and develop a system for getting your chair in the car. However, if these things prove impossible, the alternative is to choose where you live more carefully so that driving is not necessary for independence.
I got my licence as soon as I could after my accident. I was also lucky enough to be able to buy a car soon after that. This ability to transfer in and out, drive, and also get my chair in and out of the car was critical to me at that time. It allowed me to socialise, go back to university, and subsequently get work.
For me the hardest part of this process was finding a system for getting my chair into the car. Learning to transfer under ideal conditions was much less hard, although it remains challenging if the circumstances are difficult. Driving was not hard to learn. Some of my experiences with these processes are outlined below.
- Learning to drive – the main issue for me in driving was finding a way to maintain my balance whilst steering and using the hand controls. In my experience the problems and solutions to this issue are very specific to each car. Usually the solution involves finding the right seat position in terms of recline angle, and distance from the steering wheel. In addition the arm rest on the drivers door is a critical balance support for me. Recently I have added an extra piece of foam to the drivers door above the arm rest, this means my elbow is supported both above and below. This allows me to push up or down against those supports to maintain balance when I corner left or right. I think it took about 3 months for me to get my licence. The rehab place I was in gave us access to a car and driving lessons with an instructor several times a week until we got our licence, all free on the medical system here in Australia. I’m not sure how I would have done it without that.
- Learning to transfer – in my case car transfers are much the same as transfers on to a bed. The key additional things are that I need to ensure: 1) the chair is well secured and unable to move away from the car as I transfer. I carefully select where I park to minimise this risk. Ideally you want a solid even but slightly rough textured surface like bitumen and a downwards slope with the nose of the car pointing down. Flat is ok but upward slopes are bad; 2) the back of the car seat is level with the door post of the car; 3) I move my buttocks well forward in the chair; 4) my legs are slightly bent rather than straight; 5) I can rest my head on the dash. Originally, after my accident, I think it took a few months to learn how to get into easy cars, a few more to get into more difficult cars. Some cars remain impossible, mainly this is when there is a big horizontal distance, or a big height difference, between the wheelchair and the car seat. These include many four wheel drives, and sporty type cars.
- Selecting a car – I have had 4 cars since my accident. The key things in my view: 1) you have to be able to transfer into it; 2) get the right hand controls that suit you; 3) power windows are very helpful but not absolutely crucial; 4) air-conditioning is crucial; 5) power steering and automatic transmission are legally required obviously; and 6) I always have station wagons because its much easier for passengers to put the chair in the back if I am travelling with someone else.
- Putting the chair in the car – I use rigid chairs because they are much better to push. To get my rigid chairs in the car I: 1) take the wheels off and put them on the floor of the back passenger seat; 2) fold the back rest down; 3) recline my seat; 4) then lift the frame across to the back passenger seat. There are many other systems such as hoists onto the car roof, or having one chair at your departure and another at your destination. I have tried all these and they all work to some extent. The above approach suits me best but it did take me a long time to find the exact sequence of moves that allow me to do it. In addition each time I get a new chair or a new car I spend quite a bit of time, usually hours, finding, and then practicing a new technique to get the new chair into the old car, or the old chair into the new car.
To finish this page a piece of bad news and a piece of good news.
The bad news first. Car design in recent years, say post 2005, has moved in a direction that makes it increasingly difficult for quads to safely transfer. In early 2012 I wanted to upgrade my car but I found I could not easily transfer in to many new cars. I think the reasons why include: there is a bigger distance between the wheelchair and drivers seat; it is more difficult to lean my head on something whilst transferring; and the car doors do not open as wide. I ended up buying a 2005 model which was a little easier than the newer models. Nevertheless I still ended up in the gap between my chair and the car seat several times as I was learning to get in to my new car. As a result I got a hard piece of foam made to fit in and fill up the gap between my chair and the car. The result is that if don’t manage a clean transfer in one move from chair to drivers seat I land on the foam, rather than falling on the ground. I can then simply move from the foam to the drivers seat. I now almost never land on the foam, but it gives me more confidence knowing it is there.
Now for the good news. It is not necessary to drive and/or transfer on your own to be independent. For the last 10 years I have lived and worked in the CBD of a big city, Sydney. This means I don’t need a car to have my current lifestyle. I still have one, but I only use it occasionally on weekends and for holidays . However, I am confident that when I get too old to transfer or drive I will still be able to get out and about, and live independently as long as I live in the CBD.
videos of how I get in and out of the car and how I get my chair in and out
CLICK HERE for a video of a quad called Sean getting his chair out of his car and then transferring in to his chair in very much the same way I do, as described above
CLICK HERE for a video of a quad called Naz transferring in a very different way from me but getting his chair in and out of the car using a very similar technique
Here’s what the experts say
Experts seem to agree quads can transfer and drive
CLICK HERE for an account of the processes involved in getting your licence after spinal cord injury in the state of Victoria. Australia. It is similar to the process I went through and in most places I imagine
Rule number 20 – The car is a ticket to freedom but it can become a prison