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Breaking Down Barriers…and Crashing Through Fences

By Emily @emily_ladau

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It’s confession time.

You might recall that I was SUPER excited about passing my road test last week! Well, now that I’m finally a part of the licensed drivers club, I think I’m ready to take a deep breath and reveal a few juicy secrets I’ve been keeping about my time as a student driver. Suffice it to say the road to my license was, um, quite a bumpy one.

I always knew I wanted to learn to drive, but unlike my friends, I didn’t jump on getting my license the second I turned 16. It wasn’t until the month of my 21st birthday in July 2012 that I decided to begin the process. The first driving instructor I tried pulled into my driveway with an adapted van the size of an elephant that looked and worked like a death trap. I had managed to get halfway down the street when the instructor told me to practice putting on the brakes. I pushed down on the handle of the hand control, which promptly responded to the pressure by falling off. I hadn’t even made it two minutes into my first lesson and I was freewheeling down my street with a broken braking system.

That should have been a warning sign that bigger disasters were on the horizon, but I figured it was a fluke. But since I valued my safety and wanted a better instructor, I switched teachers after just two lessons. This meant I had to wait all the way until January 2013 to pick up driving again. Of course, the only time I could make it to lessons was after dark since my dad had to drive me to a school almost 45 minutes away from our house. So, I had my first lesson with my new instructor on a freezing, nearly pitch black winter night. I was rigid and frigid – the combination of nerves and cold made it nearly impossible for me to even move my arms. (Only a minor detail when it comes to driving.)

The next night, during my second lesson, I was wobbling my way around the road when my instructor decided he wanted me to change lanes and took it upon himself to take the wheel and move me over, without signaling first. I kid you not. Well, I guess I was wobbling and weaving just a little too much because the next thing I saw were bright red and blue flashing lights in the rearview mirror. Yes, just two lessons in I was already being pulled over…for a suspected DUI! Mortified and panicked, I handed my learner’s permit to the policeman and pled my case as a student driver while he all but shoved his flashlight in my face. Luckily, I’m a sweet talker with a relatively innocent face, so the policeman quickly realized I was only drunk on nerves and apologized for frightening me.

And so my lessons continued for another week. However, on top of being spooked by getting pulled over, I was still incredibly uncomfortable behind the wheel and felt like I had no clue what I was doing. On the night of my 8th lesson, I managed to make it almost all the way through the hour and was on my way back to the driving school when things took a turn for the worst – literally.

Breaking Down Barriers...and Crashing Through Fences

I was fast approaching a tight right turn, picking up speed on a downhill instead of using the brake to get ready and slow down. I turned the wheel to the right, spun around the turn at a ridiculous speed, and then instead of correcting the wheel in time, I just kind of kept turning. Straight through a fence. Dodging massive tree trunks. Into a ditch.

Oops. Major oops. I held it together surprisingly well, calling my dad to come find the scene of the accident and graciously accepting help from concerned strangers offering to call the police. I wasn’t hurt at all, and neither was my instructor, but the minivan I was driving was destroyed on the bottom. My dad found me straining to hold myself up in the driver’s seat because the van was angled really far forward in the ditch. I was shaken and humiliated, feeling like an utter failure. Plus, the temperature was several degrees below freezing, easily one of the coldest nights of the whole winter.

Then the police arrived. I found myself face-to-face with – you guessed it – the exact same policeman who pulled me over for suspected DUI. I wanted to stay in the ditch and freeze to death. Instead, I calmly instructed the policemen on the best way to carry me and my wheelchair up the icy, uneven hill back to the street. And then I got into my family van and lost it. I was a teary-eyed, snot-nosed mess, cursing myself and declaring it wasn’t worth it for me to ever get back behind the wheel.

But I did get back behind the wheel. I decided to finish up my senior year of college, do a summer internship in Washington, D.C., and then resume driving lessons once and for all. And I learned a few valuable lessons other than how to drive along the way. First, I learned a practical lesson: I needed to use different adaptive equipment to make it safer to drive. When I changed equipment, everything suddenly felt easier. Second, I learned how crucial it is not to give up. I know how cliché this sounds, but it’s so important. With all of the environmental barriers and limitations I face because of my disability, I didn’t want the inability to drive to be an obstacle I put upon myself.

The road to getting myself on the road was never an easy one. I failed my first road test, again letting my nerves get the best of me. But I was determined to do whatever it took to get my license and succeed in breaking down barriers to my independence. I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I’ve actually become a pretty good driver. (I promise!) So as I waited on the line to take my second and final road test last week, I felt something shift within me. I let go of my fears, stopped beating myself up, and called on every bit of confidence inside me. And so many months after my journey began, I nailed it.

I’ve heard tons of stories about misadventures of people learning to drive. Do you have one?

Photo credit: Fire At Will [Photography] / Foter / CC BY-SA

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