Driving after spinal cord injury

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on January 26, 2021 # Lifestyle, SCI Awareness

woman in wheelchair exiting vanBefore sustaining a T12 spinal cord injury in a work accident, much of Andy Blood’s life was defined by motion: he was a passionate rock climber, a fan of fast cars, an electrical lineman whose days revolved around working atop tall utility poles. The accident challenged his sense of self.

“It’s incredibly difficult adjusting to this,” he says. “Your whole life is consumed by a new injury you never expected to have.”

Blood struggled to imagine what his new life would look like, including whether he would ever drive again. As a kid, he loved cars and motorcycles and as an adult, took pride in the Class A commercial driver’s license that allowed him to drive semi-trucks and tractor trailers on the job.

“Driving was pretty important to me,” he says.

A few months after the accident, Blood’s rehabilitation team at Craig Hospital deemed him ready for driver evaluation and training. Seventeen years later, he still remembers that first moment behind the wheel.

“It was exhilarating,” he says. “It was pure excitement. I realized I could do this again. It was a glimpse of hope, big time.”

For many people who live with paralysis, driving helps restore a critical aspect of life that seems lost in the early days after an injury: independence.

“You don’t realize how much it impacts and changes a whole life,” Blood says. “You can get your own groceries, take your family and friends out again. Getting mobility independence back really does make the biggest difference in everyone’s daily life and recovery.”

The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (ADED) counts 805 members across the United States who offer evaluation and training for people with disabilities, ranging from the newly injured to individuals living with paralysis who need new accommodations as they age. According to ADED executive director Elizabeth Green, most members are occupational therapists and all have received specialized training.

“Their aim is to get people back on the road if it is possible, in the safest possible way,” she says.

Newly injured individuals should work collaboratively with physicians, therapists and driver rehabilitation specialists as they pursue driving goals.

“Driving is an activity of daily living, but the most dangerous activity associated with daily living,” Green says. “The first thing we recommend is that clients have a conversation with doctors to make sure they are medically ready. Everyone should be on the same page in terms of where the person is in their recovery.”

Driver rehabilitation specialists conduct a comprehensive clinical evaluation of muscle strength, flexibility and range of motion, hand-eye coordination and cardiovascular stamina. On-the-road training ensures that drivers are confident and competent using modified equipment.

While Blood was able to easily access an evaluation at Craig Hospital, the process can be more complicated depending on geographical location and injury level.

Nic Cole, who sustained a C5 injury in a boating accident, traveled to a hospital two hours from his Arkansas home for an evaluation only to be told when he arrived that a mistake had been made; the car used for training was meant for individuals who could transfer in and out, something that wasn’t possible with Cole’s injury.

Frustrated by the lack of high-tech programs in Arkansas that could support his injury level, Cole ultimately found the resources he needed at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Now, he can drive himself to and from the local high school every day to help coach the baseball team.

“Before, I didn’t have as much freedom as I wanted,” Cole says. “I really wanted that independence back.”

At Shepherd, Cole learned that state vocational rehabilitation programs sometimes cover the costs of vehicle modification; after returning to Arkansas, he was able to purchase a van with help from this funding.

ADED recommends that all individuals living with paralysis determine what funding support they may be eligible for even before contacting local driver rehabilitation specialists. Vocational rehabilitation services vary by state, but some will cover the costs of the evaluation, training and vehicle modification for qualified individuals.

Support can also be found through non-profits, including the Blood Brothers Foundation, the non-profit launched by Andy Blood in 2012 to help people living with paralysis pay for vehicle modifications that help them to get back on the road.

“It’s so hard to do anything when you lose your independence,” he says. “To gain any little piece of it back is tremendously helpful.”

To locate your state’s rehabilitation agency, search here.

To find a qualified evaluator, contact the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (ADED), which maintains a list of certified specialists throughout the country.