Nobody's Perfect - Driving with my hands - take two

Written by Sister Karen Zielinski, OSF. Posted in Health and Beauty

I have a restricted driver’s license in the state of Ohio. That means I can only drive a motor vehicle with hand controls. I have had a restricted license for ten years now. It was a new experience for me.

I was 16 years old when I passed my first driver’s test in Detroit, Michigan and parallel parked to get my license. Years later, I took my restricted driver’s test in the state of Ohio. This time, I drove with my hands and had to pass a maneuverability test to get my restricted license. I am so proud of myself for learning a new way of driving, but learning the skill took almost a year from my very first interview to the lessons and, finally, to my driving test.

Facing the reality
After many years driving, my multiple sclerosis (MS) weakened my legs considerably, especially in warm and humid weather. I would get nervous every time I drove my van. I knew that driving demanded that my legs be in control to accelerate and break.

Driving had become a challenge for me. I knew I had to do something—I was too young to stop driving altogether. My sister encouraged me to learn to drive with hand controls, and a friend with MS was a great resource for me since she had just learned hand controls and was doing well. I decided to start the process, which took about a year. I did not tell many people at first. I think I was afraid others might think, “Oh my gosh! Your MS is really getting worse! You still want to drive?”

Planning for the van
I first met with (now retired) Beverly Zach, MRC, CRC, my vocational rehabilitation counselor from the State of Ohio, Rehabilitation Services Commission (RSC), Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation (BVR). Bev interviewed me, asked about my job, and designed an IPE (Individualized Plan for Employment), which included getting me started with a vehicle-modification plan. I had personal and medical forms to complete; my doctor filled out medical forms, too.

Bev quotes the mission: “RSC partners with individuals with disabilities to achieve quality employment, independence, and disability determination outcomes.” Basically, the State of Ohio helps consumers like me with vehicle modifications so they can perform the essential functions of their job. The initial process had begun. She said that the consumer (me) owns the vehicle, and the state helps make it fit my needs. Many states do this—funds and services vary from state to state.

A vehicle-modification consultant came to my house and studied my electric cart as well as my old van with the lift in the back. To place my electric cart in the van, I had to manually attach a nylon cord under the cart; with the help of a lift powered by my car battery, I guided the cart into the back of the van. The consultant took photos of the lift and my cart and made a recommendation to me and the state about which vans were best suited for my needs.

Learning to drive again
The driving lessons were next. I have to admit I was a nervous student. For over 40 years I drove a car with my hands and feet. I was completely switching gears now. I am quite conscientious, and many times my driving instructors would tell me, “Karen, don’t think so much!”

My first driving lessons began in late November of 2009. The state had contracted Northwest Ohio Driver Training School located in Stryker, Ohio for the lessons. I started with two lessons a week. A certified driver rehab specialist was my first teacher; she came to my house and picked me up in the school’s sedan, which was fitted with hand controls. We spent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons practicing in a local park. The weather wouldn’t cooperate. It became icy, lessons were cancelled, and the holidays came. I began lessons again with a new teacher from the same school. Again, the winter weather seemed to always “ice on my parade” on class days.

Weather wasn’t the only problem. The teachers were great instructors and very patient, but I was a wreck. I could not imagine driving this new way. My right hand used a “spinner knob” to make turns and drive, and the left hand controlled the break and accelerator. Week after week, my driving instructor picked me up and I drove to the Lucas County Rec Center, where the telltale red spray paint on the parking lot stands as a monument to thousands of first-time drivers learning to maneuver between orange cones. I joined those ranks. Sometimes I drove around those orange cones flawlessly, but other times I rode over them.

As a high school kid, I parallel parked. I did not have to go through the maneuverability test—or the Five Cones of Death as I came to call them. I tried to use my mirrors as my instructor said. She told me, “You can always start over, but do not hit a cone or you fail your test!” Those words kept ringing in my head. Finally, she drove me to take my test. I prayed and prayed and finally passed it.

My restricted license means I can only drive a vehicle with hand controls and power steering. Others can drive my van, since I have a regular seat and can just slip off the spinner knob. They cannot drive with my hand controls.

Success and new challenges
Once I passed my road test with my new amended Ohio license, I sent the vehicle-modification consultant my date of issue, my renewal date, and the restriction codes. He reminded me that only two minivans had compliant chassis that we could use. My congregation chose the Dodge Grand Caravan since it was the most economical. The van chassis then had to be lowered by the Braun Corporation in Indiana to facilitate the use of a side ramp.

Finally, I had my van. But that is just the continuation of the hand-controls saga. I practiced on our convent grounds and read my new van manual about 300 times. My spinner knob fell off three times when I was practicing (I learned how to lock it in place). I also had button problems. There are five different buttons that can open my side ramp, which pulls out to about seven feet. I was driving home one day from the grocery store, when I noticed my back trunk was open. I could not, for the life of me, tell how I opened it. I later found that there are buttons above the driver’s seat that open some doors. I must have stood up to grab something in the passenger’s seat and hit the button with my head.

I also have parked in a handicapped spot and had to get someone to move my van since it was not a van-accessible spot. For over ten years, I just parked my blue minivan in any handicapped parking space. I would drive to the store parking lot, look for the international accessible symbol, and park. I would stow and remove my electric cart from the back hatch of my van. I would not pay much attention to words like “van- accessible” or note the larger yellow diagonal stripes on the pavement next to the parking space.

But things are different now with my new van. I stow and unload my electric cart differently. The chassis is lowered—it “kneels down”—and a ramp comes out behind the passenger seat. I back my cart up the ramp and tie down my cart. Then I transfer to the driver’s seat and go on my way. When I look for a handicapped parking space now, I look for the “van-accessible” signs. I need more room to drive up the ramp—seven feet to be exact.

After over eight years with my first van, I went through a similar, but less lengthy (11 months), program and now drive a Honda Odyssey. I am now driving my second van and am utterly grateful that I have this gift of transportation that fits my limitations.

Where to park
A conversion van brings with it another challenge: where to park. A handicapped parking spot was not enough. I needed enough room for my ramp to come out on the passenger side of the van, plus about three more feet, totaling about seven feet. A few times I got caught when someone parked in the aisle, the blue, diagonal-striped spot adjacent to the parking place. Many times, I had to go to the store manager and ask the person to move their car so I could get in my van using my ramp.

I am grateful that I have this ramp—and when I find a parking space that is van-accessible.

Sister Karen Zielinski is the Director of Canticle Studio. Canticle Studio is a part of the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, OH’s overall advancement effort and has a mission of being a creative center where artists generate works, products, and services in harmony with the mission of the Sisters St. Francis. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 419-824-3543. ❦