Irish Wheelchair Association offers people with disabilities the road to independence
LEARNING to drive can be a challenge for most people, but when you have mobility issues, the task can sometimes seem overwhelming.
From its base in Ballycanew, the Irish Wheelchair Association offers the opportunity to people with a physical disability, to learn to drive, or to be assessed for what type of vehicle might suit them best.
'The driving school is a vital service here in Wexford,' said IWA service co-ordinator Mary Farrell. 'We have our own adapted car and a specialised instructor, so people can do lessons in the same way as anybody else, and when the instructor feels they are ready to do their test, they take it. They have to be every bit as safe on the road as anybody else.'
The service is part of the IWA's National Mobility Centre, which helps people learn to drive for the first time, or return to driving.
The service in Wexford is conducted throughout the county, but Mary said that not enough people know about the service, and if enough people aren't using it in Wexford, it could be lost to the county, and people might then have to travel to Kilkenny for driving lessons.
She pointed out that the ability to drive can be life-changing for many people with a disability. 'It gives great independence to people and it gives them the freedom of being able to integrate further into the community,' she said. 'It allows them to access employment, training, a social life, and basically access what is a basic right for everybody else.'
'For young people, it might help them to access college,' she said. 'For people who might have acquired a disability through an accident, they might have to learn that skill again. It gives them a new lease of life.'
One motorist who learned to drive through the centre is Bernie Flood (29), from The Harrow, who drives directly from her powered wheelchair. Before she learned to drive, she was depending on her parents to bring her around.
'I have my own independence now. I can go anywhere I want, whether it's going to the shops, visiting my sister, or going out socialising,' she said. Bernie took a one hour lesson per week for two years before sitting her test. Her first car was a Ford Focus, but he had to lift her wheelchair in and out of the car, which was a strain on her back. Her current vehicle allows her to bring her wheelchair right up to the steering wheel, so she can drive from her chair.
'The service offered by the Irish Wheelchair Association has made a big difference,' she said. 'I feel a lot better in myself. I would definitely recommend it to anybody out there.'
Another local who learned to drive with the IWA is Vivian Rath (33), from Kilmuckridge. He began driving around 14 years ago. 'For any young person starting off driving, it can be very daunting and exciting,' he said, 'but for a person with a disability, there are some extra challenges. Most young people learn to drive in the car of a family member, but when you have a particular disability, that option is not available to you.'
He contacted the service in Ballycanew. 'The key is, the IWA has an adapted car with hand controls, a seat raiser, and a steering knob,' he said. 'The lesson is subsidised as well.'
Vivian pointed out that the most important aspect of the service is the assessment before you even get behind the wheel so the individual's needs can be determined. The IWA can give advice on what type of adaptations might suit best.
He said the ability to drive developed his independence, and it also allowed him to go to college, to UCD, where he studied pharmacology. 'It was a huge campus and having a car opened up new horizons for me,' he said. 'It has been life changing. Having a social life is really important. I was dependent on my family and friends if I wanted to go on a night out or to a hurling game. It opened up a whole new life for me.'