Challenges and Solutions for Disabled Drivers

Image by  Paul Brennan  from  Pixabay

Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

People who live with disabilities face many challenges in life. While most people go about their daily lives taking most of their abilities for granted, people who are disabled (sometimes referred to as being ‘differently-abled’ or as Orang Kurang Upaya [OKU] in Bahasa Malaysia), they face many obstacles and challenges that make it difficult for them to enjoy life.

Quite often, we only hear discussions about ‘accessibility’ for disabled people in the form of having ramps in and around buildings, on sidewalks, or public transportation to make it easier for them to navigate around those areas. However, what this article focuses on is the challenge of vehicular mobility for disabled people, referring to their ability to move around the town or city that they live in by using automobiles.

Mobility is a major issue for disabled people which we often take for granted. Being able to move around your locale is crucial not only so that you have access to important services like hospitals, clinics, and supermarkets to purchase supplies, it is also incredibly important because it enables people to obtain employment wherever they may be. When people are able to find jobs and move freely to that location every day, they are able to earn a decent living for themselves, increase their quality of life and strengthen their self-esteem.

In some areas, there are free transportation services provided specifically for those who are wheelchair-bound or have difficulties moving around. These are either provided by the local municipal government or by caring Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) which are funded by donations from the public or by corporations. Services like these operate by providing a pick-up and drop-off service for people with disabilities to get to wherever they need to go.

For those who have their own means of transportation, there are a lot of automotive technologies available to help them drive safely. There even exists a niche in the automotive industry dedicated to disabled drivers, with large international car shows and conferences taking place every year such as the Disabled Drivers Motor Show and Conference in Ireland. 

Here are some very important ways that automotive technology supports drivers and even passengers with disabilities:

Wheelchair Accessibility

One of the most commonly-seen technologies being used in vehicles is wheelchair accessibility equipment. These are modifications made to vehicles like cars and vans that allow for a person in a wheelchair to easily enter and exit the vehicle. Some of these solutions are low-tech, consisting of only an extendable ramp, but there are others as well that use winches to help lift the entire wheelchair into the side or back of the vehicle. 

As you can imagine, loading and unloading a person in a wheelchair requires a lot more space around the vehicle to be done safely. This, by the way, is why disabled/OKU parking spots are much larger than regular parking spots; it’s because they allow much more clearance for people to enter and exit their vehicles. 

Adaptive Driving Equipment

There are quite a number of manufacturers who specialise in what is commonly known as ‘adaptive driving equipment’. Among others, they produce hand controls specifically tailored to drivers who are unable to operate conventional foot pedals we normally see in automobiles. These hand controls are used as extensions of the accelerator and brake pedals, allowing for those with disabilities related to their legs to safely operate a car using their hands instead.

Furthermore, manufacturers who specialize in adaptive driving equipment are also able to modify steering wheels to suit their customer’s unique needs, such as making them just the right size or installing them with necessary attachments tailored to the driver’s abilities.

The trade off here is that drivers will need to have good upper-body strength in order to operate these controls, as they will place an added demand on the driver’s hands and arms in order to operate the vehicle for extended periods of time. Furthermore, they’ll need more practice to develop coordination in using all the different hand controls.

Autonomous Vehicles

What if we could use autonomous vehicles to help the disabled? As-is, the development of autonomous or self-driving cars is gaining a lot of progress, with certain models already operating on regular roads in certain countries. It’s not that hard to imagine that someday soon, we’ll see autonomous vehicles being able to impact the lives of the disabled in a much greater way!

As self-driving technologies improve and costs eventually decline, more and more disabled people will be able to travel around without even worrying about operating the vehicles themselves. 

Licensing for Disabled Drivers

Just like regular drivers of any type of automobile, disabled drivers need to obtain licenses in order to operate a motor vehicle. However, drivers with disabilities face much bigger challenges in the initial stages of that process when compared to drivers without disabilities. In Malaysia, it is possible to get a license for disabled drivers so long as they meet the necessary medical requirements to ensure that they’re physically capable of operating their vehicle. Additionally, their vehicle and any adaptive driving equipment or modifications made to it will need to be inspected by JPJ’s Automotive Engineering Department to ensure that it is safe to be used on the road.

Spare a Thought

Having understood all of this, its becomes much clearer now that the hurdles a person with disabilities has to go through just to be able to drive are far more complex than most of us might realise. With that in mind, its good to always be aware and respectful of the needs of disabled persons and to do our part in ensuring that they have access to the things they need to enjoy the same mobility as everyone else.