I was born visually impaired and although I have faced a fair few challenges, my disability hasn’t stopped me achieving my goals. However, there has always been something I have desperately wanted to do but haven’t been allowed. Drive a car.
I didn’t really understand my visual impairment as a child. I knew I had to sit close to the whiteboard at school and it’s fair to say no one wanted me on their netball team. On reflection, I was still falling over regularly when my peers had grown out of playground tumbles. My mum says that a pair of tights never lasted more than a week and the skin on my knees is still scarred from the constant scrapes. This was perhaps an indication that some kind of mobility training or intervention would’ve been wise, but none was offered. Anyway I was generally fine, and it was my ‘normal’.
Of course I went for regular check ups at the ophthalmologist. I was used to being prodded and poked, made to look at charts, have annoying drops squirted in my eyes and painful lights shone at me.
At one of these appointments, I was about 12, I had a question for the doctor, will I be able to drive? Without pausing for a second he said rather tactlessly “no, of course not!” I was devastated. It had never occurred to me before, and suddenly this thing that made me different, my disability, felt massive. It felt like something had been stolen from me. I remember standing in the car park afterwards sobbing and sobbing, not wanting to get into my mum’s car because I would never be able to drive myself home.
At 17, all of my friends were learning to drive, and either getting their own car or finally being allowed to drive one. I was so jealous. All anyone could talk about was theory tests, driving lessons and applying for a licence. I felt so left out and secretly rejoiced when someone failed their test. My parents saw the impact it was having on me, and did something amazing, something I will always be so grateful for.
They moved us from a small rural town to the centre of the city, practically next door to my school. Our house became the party house, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t drive because everyone socialised at my place. We were 15 minutes walk from the pubs and clubs. Pretty much every weekend for years my parents lovingly tolerated first my, and then my sister’s, pals coming in at 2 o’clock in the morning and collapsing on the sofa.
Ever since then I’ve planned my life around not needing to drive. I’ve moved from Leeds to London, where I can rely on public transport 24/7. Other Half does drive, and he does give me lifts when I need, especially if it’s late at night and local. Even if I didn’t have my Other Half taxi, not being able to drive wouldn’t have a massive impact on my life in London. However, I’ve always dreamed of getting behind the wheel and a few weeks ago I got to drive a car for the first time in my life.
Other Half did some fantastic research and for my birthday present found the Explore 4×4 visually impaired driving experience at Elveden Estate in Suffolk. When we arrived we met Deb the instructor, who was absolutely lovely and so enthusiastic. I was quite surprised to find out that the car, a huge old Land Rover Discovery, was not automatic and it didn’t have dual controls! Deb explained that they believed that visually impaired people deserved to have as real a driving experience as possible, and that’s why they use a manual car with no dual controls. I was a bit nervous about managing a clutch and gears but Deb reassured me.
We started in a large open field, I’d never sat in the drivers seat as an adult and it felt totally alien. The first step was to adjust my seat, get comfortable and when I was ready, turn the ignition key. The second the car growled into life I started to cry. Just making a car move was so incredible, as a visually impaired person you are always a passenger, and being in control of a vehicle was brilliant. It was such an amazing feeling and one I never thought I would have.
I learned about the different pedals and had a go at the clutch. We agreed that Deb would change the gears with the stick, as I felt a bit unsure about that, and didn’t want to grind the gear box! However, I managed the clutch control pretty quickly and during the whole session only stalled a couple of times. We gently pottered around the field a few times, as I got a feel for the steering, acceleration and breaks. It was incredible, but it felt so natural and easy really quickly. After 15 minutes, Deb concluded that I was already a pro and decided it was time to head to the off road tracks!
The off road tracks were all in a beautiful forest. It was a really bright sunny day and the light conditions meant I was constantly going from my pretty rubbish residual vision to almost no vision at all. Deb gave me constant instructions, explaining the route, telling me when to turn left or right, and how much, whether I needed more power or to slow down. My calm confident manner meant that she decided to take us on some pretty tricky terrain!
The best thing about being off road was that the track was so sensory and I could really feel all the bumps, turns and dips. Deb encouraged me to try some cool maneuvers and my favourite part was driving up on the side of a slope!
Unfortunately we got a bit distracted chin wagging at one point and I may have bumped into a tree. It was at about 2 miles an hour, and I just didn’t break properly in time. There was a slight prang to the bumper but it was otherwise fine. No one was hurt, and I did a pretty nifty reverse.
Although the bump was unfortunate it demonstrated how willing Deb was to take informed risks and that was awesome, as it meant I could have a real adventure! This video shows a fun moment, it was towards the end of the drive. I was feeling really confident. As you can see, even if I say so myself, I did some cool steering moves.
I can honestly say that getting to drive an off road car was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I absolutely loved every moment of it. I was also really good! Deb was so full of praise and said I was one of the best drivers, sighted and visually impaired, she’d ever instructed. She was an amazing teacher and constantly filled me with confidence and explained everything so clearly. Frankly I’m addicted and can’t wait to try again.
The team at Explore 4×4 have done an incredible thing by making it possible for visually impaired people to have a go at driving. With a bit of extra training, great disability awareness and some imagination they’ve opened up this opportunity to so many people. It really demonstrates the impact of accessible experiences. I was able to have such an important life experience because someone has made the effort to make something accessible.
Accessibility isn’t just about public transport or buildings. It’s about opening up the world to disabled people so they can enjoy life and try new things that non disabled people take for granted. Making something inclusive doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult, but it will always make a huge difference to the lives of disabled people.