Independence isn’t really something you think about until it’s threatened. It is just one of many things we take for granted – like having a job and a social life. Being able to do what we want, when we want. Being able to drive.

My disability has meant that I have had to battle to maintain my independence. It is desperately important to me and my self-esteem. I want to work. I want to feel like I am doing my bit. Being free is such a blessing and it’s a privilege that people don’t even give a second thought to until it is at stake. When our independence is threatened it often stirs up all kinds of emotion. Anxiety, anger, frustration, hopelessness to name a few. These emotional reactions become even greater when the threat to independence is thanks to discrimination or injustice.

There are so many reasons that people use wheelchairs, so making blanket assumptions about their capabilities seems about as reliable as making blanket assumptions about the health of every 30 year old. Yet that is about the sum of my recent experiences when I went to renew my driver’s license and mobility parking sticker…

For me, my car is my key to my freedom. It lets me get to work. It lets me take myself to appointments. It lets me have a social life. But when I went to renew my license, my ability to drive was questioned purely based on the fact that I am in a wheelchair. Not my near 15 years driving with a clean slate. Not my doctor’s clearance to drive. Purely the fact that I am in a wheelchair.

Driving is a privilege not a right and not one I take lightly. We all want to be safe on our roads. We expect that people be penalised for speeding, driving under the influence and getting too many demerit points. However, we don’t expect perfectly capable drivers who have proven themselves by passing the same tests as everyone else (and cleared by their doctor) to be asked to prove themselves all over again simply because the RMS has decided to make some blanket assumptions about people in wheelchairs.

I should say, were they only asking to demonstrate physical capability to use the vehicle’s controls, it may be a different case, but the “Disability Driving Test” is the same test that you first did to get your P plates. The same test I have already taken and passed first go at the age of 17.

Of all the people I have spoken with since, everyone has openly admitted they would be terrified if they had to do their practical driving test again. Most say they don’t think they’d pass without refresher lessons. The thing is though, they don’t have to worry about it because they can walk.

This situation was a clear case of bureaucratic blanket rules that seem to be arbitrarily applied and unyielding.

The thought of my freedom and independence being at risk made me both grateful for what I do have and terrified at the thought of it being taken away. I have no fear about my ability to drive safely and skilfully but of course I feared of the exam – especially with the gravity of the consequences. Who wouldn’t!

Thankfully, I passed the test, but the issues still remain:

  1. Mobility parking permit forms, despite asking no questions about one’s ability to drive, can be used to judge one’s ability to drive even after though a ‘medical fitness to drive’ form states a doctor’s clearance to drive.
  2. Blanket assumptions are made about people in wheelchairs to the extent that a person’s doctor’s clearance is ignored.
  3. Even though you might be an experienced driver with not a single demerit, assessors don’t just examine the physical ability to use the controls but actually make you sit the same test as you did to go from your L’s to your provisional driver’s license.

Discrimination is one of the biggest obstacles to that independence and it can be far more limiting than the actual physical limitations of the disability. That doesn’t mean you give up and give in though. It’s ironic really because the bigger the barrier, the taller I stand, and the taller I stand, the more people stand with me – until we break down the barrier and wheel right over it.

So while I had to prove my ability to drive AGAIN because of some stereotypes about people in wheelchairs, I won’t take it sitting down. I hope that the next person will be assessed as the individual they are.

Jo Berry

You can read more from Jo here.

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