Why driving with hand controls will change my life…

Gem Turner – a local disabled blogger and consultant – shares her experiences of being a young disabled woman and the life-changing effect of taking control of her own Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle.

Gem pictured with her new Ford Torneo Connect

I would say that I’m a city gal. Even though I live in a town about 30 minutes away – Leeds is where my heart is. It’s where I went to University to study New Media, where I started my first job and where I base a lot of my consultancy work when I’m not blogging and creating content. I find the city mostly accessible and flat to get around, and have my favourite spots I like to visit. But, after I left University it was so difficult to travel to Leeds as a disabled wheelchair user.

A lot of people assume that things are *great* for disabled people now, but we still have a long way to go. Let me give you some insight:

  • My local area doesn’t have wheelchair accessible taxis, so if I wanted to get to Leeds – I would pay extra for a Leeds taxi to come and pick me up.
  • My local train station wasn’t accessible (although it is now – phew!) but of course, I’m not able to order a local taxi to get to the station and it’s about 20 minutes away via foot.
  • To access a ramp on a train you have to book this with 24 hours notice.
  • If I wanted to book a taxi, most taxi companies tell wheelchair users that we should give at least 24 hours notice.

So, as you can see – when you’re disabled, you have (and are expected) to plan, be organised and being spontaneous is quite difficult. Whenever a friend invited me to an event, these barriers would always be at the back of my mind. I’d never say 100% yes to invitations because it was so uncertain. I’m a very sociable person, who thrives from social interaction and learning about others. I’m that kind of person who asks what you had for dinner and your star sign because I’m genuinely interested… I know, I’m sorry. So not being able to join in with my friends and colleagues sometimes was becoming more and more frustrating.

As well as attending events and work commitments, even the concept of popping to the shop for some bread was mind-blowing to me as it’s just something I’ve never been able to do (my local corner shop has a step, unfortunately). I would always have to rely on family if I wanted to do this and ask for lifts everywhere.

So, at the age of 25, I decided it was time to look into getting a car. Two years later, I now own my own Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle (WAV) – a Ford Torneo Connect through the motability scheme. Wow, what a life-changing move! Just to be able to press a button and stroll into my own car and be automatically clamped into the driving spot in my wheelchair is so empowering for me. Even sitting in the front of a car is novel! My adaptations include a mini steering wheel on my left side and a hand accelerate/brake pedal on my right. Everything is powered and has a button for me to control, from the boot and ramp to get in, to the ignition and operation of windows. It’s all very new and exciting!

So how am I finding driving so far?

Apparently the adaptations accurately replicate the “standard” way of driving quite well, so essentially, I’m driving pretty much the same as anyone else but just with my hands. I’m noticing that I prefer detailed and complex moves than faster and wider moves at the moment – but I think that’s because I’m used to navigating smaller spaces as a wheelchair user. I can’t wait to go on the famous Leeds “Loop” everyone’s telling me about (arrh!)! Anyway, I’m finding it a bit like rubbing your belly and patting your head, but apparently it will all become natural soon.

I’m really looking forward to driving into Leeds at the drop of a hat, visiting John Lewis, parking near the docks and taking a stroll – oh and of course, popping to Morrisons for that loaf of bread…

About the blogger

Gem Turner graduated at University of Leeds in 2014 and has worked in education as well as training on equality and diversity matters. She now has her own business creating content around disability and has worked with a number companies such as NHS, Sky and ITV. To read more about her work, head to www.gemturner.com

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