Being a full-time law student at the University of Canterbury while working part-time has its difficulties. However, these challenges never made me feel as helpless as when I recently attempted to obtain my license. I am a very self-motivated, driven, and prideful person by nature. Accordingly, challenging ableism and breaking down barriers is not a foreign concept. However, obtaining medical clearance to drive was the most dehumanising thing I have experienced as a disabled person.
Importantly, I understand and agree entirely with the prioritisation of driver safety. However, I take issue with the inequitable process and the treatment I experienced rather than the overall outcome. While I had approached the process with a level of excitement, I was very awake to the possibility that the outcome would be unfavourable.
What I did not expect, however, is how openly dismissive the occupational therapist (OT) would be, despite not fully completing their physical assessment. The OT continually generalised people with Cerebral Palsy (CP) to justify their reluctance toward me driving. The OT would state things such as "people with CP usually can't…" or "you will probably struggle with…." The OT had little interest in supporting my ambitions or enabling my independence and instead was looking for reasons to discontinue the driving process. I had not even set foot in a car. Yet, the suggestion was that my determination to drive significantly outweighed my actual physical ability to do so.
I left feeling deflated yet still clinging to my initial excitement. However, I was determined to prove that the OT's scepticism was unfounded. When it came time to drive, I was only given a ten-minute crash course on operating a vehicle with hand controls. After that, I was told we would go on the road to test. This seemed unreasonable, given I had never used hand controls or driven a car. Moreover, the OT was not a qualified driving instructor. Therefore, this whole situation should not have been possible.
“The OT would gasp and shriek at every turn and bump. Ultimately, the OT's lack of composure, teamed with the beeps of inconvenienced traffic, culminated in one of the most stressful experiences of my life.”
Following this, I was to have around 20 lessons at $85 each before getting reassessed. However, the driving instructor requested the assistance of the OT after only two further lessons to determine the next steps due to some concerns. After the OT and instructor's session, I met with the OT to discuss what I believed would be the next steps and solutions for the problems they identified. During this exchange, the tone was very dismissive and passive-aggressive, as if I could not understand what had been said or how my body works. Instead, the OT stated that they had made their final assessment, ruling me medically unfit to drive and that the decision was final.
I question if it's reasonable to pass judgment after only three actual driving lessons, particularly given that I had never driven or used hand controls before these lessons. According to the OT, three and a half lessons are more than enough time to learn how to operate a motor vehicle with hand controls. When your average person learns to drive, they have the opportunity to progress and learn at their speed. Often, your average person also can jump into any car and practice. This is not the case for people who need vehicle adaptions. Unless you know someone with a vehicle with installed adaptations, the only option is to pay for lessons. Thus, while not being able to drive is disappointing, this story is about the right of a disabled person to be treated like a human being and have access to the same opportunities as everyone else.