Jim Doyle’s new adapted car looks nothing out of the ordinary as I have my first peak inside.
Far from something I’d expect to see on Tomorrow’s World, it looks quite normal, with the usual steering wheel, handbrake, foot pedals and controls.
But this is no typical car, as I’m about the learn.
Last year Jim, one of Ireland’s most qualified driving instructors, had the unenviable task of putting me through a ‘mock’ driving test. It ended in failure, but did give me a chance to brush up on the bad driving habits I’d got into.
Thankfully Jim seems to have recovered from that trauma and has volunteered to take me out and try the features of the new car.
I suppose I’d always wondered how someone with a disability operated a car, but was too afraid to ask. Now’s my chance to understand.
“There should be no barriers when it comes to learning to drive,” says Jim. “There’s no such thing as ‘you can’t.’ The only limitations are the ones you put on yourself.”
As we take off from the ‘Journal’ office Jim says, as much he trusts my driving skills, he’s going to take charge of the driving while we’re on the main roads - wise words.
He explains that before he bought the car, people with disabilities could only learn to drive with an instructor who came to Derry every six weeks from Belfast.
“We haven’t met anyone yet that we haven’t been able to teach to drive,” he says.
“I always tell the instructors who work with me that the best way to know what a person’s needs are, is to ask them. If we’re teaching to someone to drive who has vision in one eye, I tell instructors to get an eye patch and experience what it’s like.”
Jim’s taught people with disabilities to drive for various reasons whether they’ve been born with a disability, suffered a stroke or been in an accident.
The first thing he shows me is the steering assister (pictured below), which is a nifty little device that sits on the steering wheel.
The assister is there for people who have limited mobility or have lost the use of one of their arms. As well as allowing you to steer one handed it also allows the driver to activate all the controls of the car such as indicating, using the horn and using the windscreen wipers.
Steering assisters can be developed to be used on both the right and left side.
It’s also possible to drive the car without using your legs, explains Jim.
This can be done by gently pushing or pulling on the brake and accelerator lever just below the steering wheel. If a driver has the lost the use of their right leg they can drive a car using their left leg which controls an accelerator on the left hand side.
The driver’s chair itself is a revelation and can be adjusted to sit almost as high as the ceiling and right down to the floor.
There’s also an extendable rear view mirror that gives a panoramic view out the back of the car.
It all sounds pretty straightforward as Jim gives me a go in the car.
Thankfully we’ve driven to a quiet part of Maydown where there isn’t too much traffic about. The first hurdle I have to overcome is the fact that Jim’s car is automatic, and although it should be easier driving without using a clutch, my left foot is feeling a little left out.
First of all I try the steering assister which feels completely alien to begin with. I don’t use my left hand at all while I’m using the assister and after a while it feels more comfortable to steer although it does take me a while to get used to using the controls on top.
Using the hand controls for the brake and accelerator is an experience and it’s hard to keep my brain focused on everything my hands have to do.
But using the left leg accelerator has to be the biggest hurdle.
It feels completely strange and I can’t control the pressure I’m putting on the pedal. We shunt forward as I press the accelerator first and then come to an abrupt halt when I brake with my left foot.
Jim says my reactions are natural and with practice I’d get used to the new controls.
I’m just glad he’s got dual control of the car.
The new car’s been in the city for several weeks now and Jim says he wants to make people aware it’s available for us.
“Most people with a physical disability have jobs,” said Jim. “So what we are doing is fitting lessons around the times people can do it, whether it’s in the evenings or weekends.”
He explains that the car has a number of adaptations so it can be changed to suit the individual needs of learner drivers.
“We are using this as a starting point. Once we get going we can get into even more specialised areas.”
Local woman Maura, who has cerebral palsy, says that learning in the car with Joe Brolly from the Foyle School of Driving has changed her life.
“I had tried several other schools of motoring but found that they didn’t adapt my lesson to the physical challenges that I had as a result of my medical condition,” she said.
“Joe structures each lesson to my individual needs and provides aids to help me drive. I enjoy each lesson and it is a pleasure to drive now.”
Adrian, who’s 27 and has cerebral palsy, said: ‘The team at Foyle School of Driving have been great. I was with another instructor but due to their limited availability, I was finding it difficult to fit lessons around my work schedule. I then contacted Disability Action for another instructor and they recommended Jim. I have found that they are extremely accommodating as they can take both evening and weekend lessons.
“In respect of drivers with a disability, they provide an automatic vehicle with any necessary adaptations. The lessons are very well structured so you know each week that you are progressing towards your test. With their help, I hope to take my test in a few months.
“I would recommend them to anyone who wants to learn to drive.”
You can contact the school on 02871357221.