My own set of wheels

Most people take their independence for granted. The ability to do things without help is liberating, especially for a person with a disability. I can think of few experiences that provide me with as much sense of independence as hitting the road on my own does. I was born with a connective tissue disorder called Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI). I am small of stature (around 90 cm’s tall), not very strong, and my bones break more easily than other people’s. I have always had to use a wheelchair.

In the days before I got my car I never went anywhere on my own. I had to be driven by family or friends, wherever I went. Some time ago I investigated the possibilities of modifying a car in South Africa to suit my needs but no one I spoke had confidence in the modifications. Any car for me would require extensive alterations and such alterations had not been done in this country before.

One Sunday evening, I was watching Carte Blanche, and came across the story of a woman from the Western Cape who was also small of stature and had no arms, but she had her own car and was driving it! I contacted the show and they put me in contact with the amazing driver, Nicky Abdinor. Nicky told me about a company in the UK called Steering Developments Ltd (www.steeringdevelopments.co.uk). I thought that if SDL could help Nicky to drive, surely they could do something for me too. And so began the hugely exciting process of procuring my own set of wheels.

I first visited SDL in June 2003. The initial appointment was for them to assess my strengths and abilities and see if they had an option that would work for me. They hooked me up to a machine to test my arm and leg strength, showed me some of the amazing things they were doing for other disabled drivers and then sent me home, to await their feedback. A couple of weeks later they came back to me with the good news - they had a plan for how I could drive!

Their quote was pricey but, at the time, overseas was my only option. The first decision I had to make was which car to choose. I had discussed various options with SDL when I was there and their recommendation had been an automatic Ford Focus, as it would be easier for me not to have to change gear and use a clutch. They had done many conversions of this car and believed that the two-door model would be best for me. Two-door cars are advantageous for wheelchair users as the doors are usually longer and there is more space for transferring in and out of the vehicle.

I settled on an automatic 1.6 Ford Focus Zetec and ordered the car over the phone from the Ford dealership nearest to SDL. It was far cheaper to buy the car in the UK than to buy it here, ship it to SDL for the modifications and then ship it back home again. Ford delivered the car directly to the SDL facility and, by September 2003, the conversions had begun.

My very short stature meant that I was hopelessly too short to see over the steering wheel when sitting in the driver’s seat. The driver’s seat was replaced with a new, custom-designed, Recaro seat, which operates off its own motor. This seat makes it possible for me to transfer into the vehicle at normal seat height and then, with the push of a button, I am raised up to the correct  driving height. The seat then moves forward so that I can easily reach the steering wheel.

The original steering wheel on the Ford was too large for me to handle. SDL removed it and replaced it with a smaller, racing-type steering wheel. They also lightened the power-assisted steering to make the driving of the vehicle as easy as possible. My small stature prevents me from reaching the foot control pedals. SDL built a false floor on the driver’s side of the vehicle and extended the accelerator and brake pedals so that I can reach them when in the driving position. This false floor removes easily so that other people can drive the car.

I was unable to reach the automatic gear and hand brake when seated too. SDL extended the gear lever and automated the hand brake. So now, all it takes is the push of a button to engage and release the hand brake. Where to store my wheelchair was another choice. SDL went with a Braun Chair Topper wheelchair lift to the roof of the car. The lift is automatic and, like the hand brake, works at the push of a button. The wheelchair is stored in a weather-proof box on the roof of the vehicle allowing for more space in the car and meaning that I can handle the wheelchair independently!

Finally - and it is so simple and yet so crucial - they added a strap to the driver’s door so that I can close the door from inside the vehicle. Whilst all of this was going on in the UK, I was busy getting my learners’ license and doing the paperwork to import my new vehicle into the country. A major advantage for disabled drivers is that the Department of Trade and Industry allows you to import modified vehicles into South Africa without paying import duty and that saves you quite a bit of money!

My first fitting, and the first time I saw my car, was in November 2003. My family and I flew over to the UK and I got to sit in my car for the very first time! Modifications were still at an early stage and I was told that I would need to return two months later for the final fitting. It was to a wintry UK that I returned in January 2004 in order to test drive my finished car. The two of us (my car and I) were taken to an abandoned airfield outside Hemel Hempstead. I got into the driver’s seat and was told to “take it for a spin”. That was my first driving experience and it was both exhilarating and terrifying! I thought I was racing but my maximum speed never exceeded 30km per hour!

SDL shipped the vehicle out to South Africa and by June 2004 I was having driving lessons, and learning to go a bit faster! The process of getting my car was both lengthy and expensive. From my first appointment with SDL to finally receiving the car took just short of one year. The whole exercise cost a little over R500,000 (in 2004) including three trips to the UK for my family and I, the initial cost of the car, modifications and shipping charges.

Despite this, I can honestly say that the benefit derived has far outweighed the cost. I can now go to work, meet my friends, do some shopping - all without having to rely on the kindness of others. Aside from the obvious practical benefits, having this extra freedom has been a huge boost to my confidence too. Technology in South Africa has come a long way since 2004 and I hope that, when I replace my car one day, a local company will be able to do the modifications. If not, I shall willingly return to Steering Developments Ltd, as the independence bug has well and truly bitten!

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