Putting People with Disabilities in the Driver’s Seat

(Living Beyond Disabilities - June/July 2013) The day of her motorcycle accident in 2012, doctors didn’t expect Joanne Johnson to make it through the night. She had damaged her spine, cracked 11 ribs, and broken her coccyx while skidding into a bus on a country road.

“I was in pretty bad shape,” she says.

A little over a year later, she is not only still here, but is about to get back on the road. Johnson, 60, is one of the recent graduates of the MossRehab Driving School, which has been helping people with disabilities get behind the wheel for over 35 years.

Johnson, a parapalegic, spent two months as an inpatient at MossRehab’s main campus in Elkins Park after the accident. While her occupational therapist at the time encouraged her to participate in the Driving School, she declined.

“I left MossRehab in a shell,” she said. “Still very new to it all. Had no desire to drive again.” 

A year later, after additional outpatient therapy, she felt more ready.

“I got tired finally of looking at four walls and decided … I’ve got to move forward and get out and not be so dependent on people to be able to take me places. I need to get out. I need to move on and live my life.”

Johnson’s story is fairly typical of the approximately 500 people who attend the MossRehab Driving School each year. About half of the driving students are people with disabilities looking to get approval to drive again. The other half are seniors being evaluated on whether they should continue to drive – a difficult situation for the senior and the instructor. 

“Everybody wants to drive, whether they are in a wheelchair or not,” says Dan Basore, director of the Driving School. 

Basore, a former high school teacher with a master’s in healthcare administration, leads a team that includes two other instructors. All three are certified driver rehabilitation specialists. The other two instructors are trained as occupational therapists. The team provides evaluations and training at six facilities, including Jenkintown and Doylestown, Pa.; Woodbury and Marlton, N.J.; and Rehoboth Beach and Wilmington, Del.

MossRehab Driving School helps people with disabilities (including older individuals) gain the skills to become safe, competent drivers. The School will: 

  • Evaluate a person with a disability’s potential to drive
  • Recommend driving equipment
  • Provide in-vehicle driving training
  • Assist with state licensing examinations

The school also helps with older drivers, who need an assessment of whether they should continue to drive.

The Driving School offers three vans and three cars and a wide range of equipment for training, including a variety of hand controls, left foot pedals, steering devices, zero-effort brakes and steering and remote turn signals. They can even replace the driver’s seat with a wheelchair. All of this technology and instruction is aimed at helping people with disabilities regain the freedom of the road.

“Helping people get independence, changing their lives, that is the best part,” says Basore.

Regaining Freedom

As for Joanne Johnson, she is ready to get behind the wheel once again.

“[The program] has meant everything because it is going to give me the independence that I need,” she says. “I traveled tremendously before this accident. I [drove] cross-country every year. It’s going to open that up for me again. I will be able to once again go on my own and have some independence. You don’t really realize what your independence means to you until you don’t have it.” 

Johnson had purchased her motorcycle after the sudden death of her husband at the age of 57.

“After that I felt that I was going to do things that I wanted to do. I wasn’t going to put them off. I wasn’t going to be afraid. There were lots of things that I wanted to do. Believe it or not I wanted to go parasailing. I wanted to ride a mechanical bull. I’ve always been active. I’ve always been sports-minded.”

Johnson is currently looking to acquire a vehicle with the right modifications. Then she plans to ramp up her driving.

“Just sitting idle is not for me,” she says. “I need to be on the move. “ 

For additional program information or to schedule an appointment, please call 215-886-7706.