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  • Writer's picturePeta

How does someone with a disability drive a car?

Imagine controlling your car with just your two hands. How does someone learn to drive without using their feet?

This week Peta explains how she can drive a car with only hand controls; all while sitting in her wheelchair.


Episode transcript:

Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to The I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast, answering your questions about what it's like to live with a disability. This week I got a question from Angela. Angela asked me how did I learn to drive a car? What's the process of getting your Ps when you have a disability? If you'd like to ask me a question, as always, there are three ways you can do so. Via Instagram at @icantstandpodcast, by email at, or find my website at OK, without any further ado, let's get into it.

[00:00:54] This week, I had a question about how I got my car licence. Getting my car licence was very important to me.

A photo of Peta sitting in her car, while sitting in her wheelchair ready to drive
Peta aged 19 nervously excited to start to learn to drive

[00:01:04] Not only was getting a car licence a key to freedom, independence and growing up, but it also was a signifier that I was able to keep up with all my able-bodied friends and I was going to have a pretty 'normal' life.

[00:01:22] How does one get a car licence when you have a disability? Unlike you guys that have to get 120 hours of experience before getting on P plates, it was required of me to get 150 (hours). I was taught by my dad the majority of the time, just like anybody else. I also had a great friend teach me, Loz. And I also had an instructor. I had lessons.

[00:01:55] Learning how to drive with hand controls, there are no real references about that in movies. I know you have to put your foot to the floor to accelerate, but how the hell do you do it with your arms?

[00:02:09] My parents thankfully found a brilliant instructor, and I had a lot of lessons with him because my parents could teach me the road rules but couldn't teach me how to control a car with hand controls. I got the hang of it fairly quickly, I think it helped that I'd never driven a car. Like many people do, for example, if you obtain your disability later in life, you have a reference of how to drive a car already with your legs, whereas I didn't. So using my hands feels natural. I honestly don't know how you guys do it with your legs. It, it amazes me.

[00:02:55] Now, of course, because I can't drive with foot pedals, it meant that I had to learn to drive after we bought and converted a car. This was before the NDIS, and then that time I waited a year to get my car converted and there was a lot of pressure on me because my parents had just helped me pay for not only the car but also the conversion. And these conversions before they were funded by the NDIS were super expensive.

[00:03:28] I'm going to post a video on my Instagram this week to explain to you how I use hand controls in more detail. Without visual references, it's going to be a little bit tricky, but I'm going to do my best to explain it here, too. So just bear with me.

A wheelchair accessible converted car
The interior of Peta's first car

[00:03:45] To open my car, I press a button and the boot of my car opens automatically, then a ramp automatically comes down. You might have seen that in a few of my Reels already. I drive into my car, there's no back seat on the right-hand side of my car, nor is there a driver's seat. So I sit in my wheelchair the whole time while I'm driving.

[00:04:15] Once I close the boot, I then drive closer in towards a steering wheel. There's a bolt at the bottom of my wheelchair that retracts up and down and there's a docking station on the floor. I click into place and it means that my wheelchair won't move while I'm driving. My wheelchair is now locked into the car. To get the car then started, I need to push a few more buttons. I need to turn the key into the ignition, I need to push a button and then 'air jacks' push my car up away from the ground. So for me to originally get in the car, my car was automatically lowered so the ramp wasn't too steep for my wheelchair to go into the car. Once the air goes into the car and that takes approximately 90 seconds and then take the electric handbrake off with another button and I put my car into drive or reverse whatever is appropriate, then drive off.

[00:05:23] The hand controls there are two elements. My left-hand holds a spinner knob, this spinner knob is similar to a knob that you find on a wardrobe or an old kitchen cupboard. It's about the size of your palm and it allows me to hold the steering wheel with one hand because legally we're not allowed to hold the steering wheel with one hand unless you have a spinner knob. Attached to that spinner knob is some buttons that I can choose to put on my indicators, my windscreen wipers or my headlights.

[00:06:03] My right-hand controls both the brake and the accelerator of my car, I have still got the accelerator and brake pedals there discovered by a piece of plastic to make sure my feet don't hit them while I'm using the hand controls. My right hand has to always be on the handle. It controls both my accelerator and my brake and it comes out parallel from my steering wheel. To break I have to push the handle forwards, or away from myself, towards the front of the car. To accelerate, I have to bend the handle down towards the floor at a right angle.

[00:06:51] My right hand is the side that I'm most affected by with my Cerebral Palsy, so I was a bit hesitant to think that I would have the ability to do this, but I definitely do. Both my left hand and my right hand are required to be in their positions at all times, so I'm not able to eat in my car or take a drink in my car unless I pull over. So that's also tricky.

[00:07:18] Using hand controls requires me to use a lot of my upper body strength. I don't actually lean on the back of my wheelchair when I'm driving my car. I use my core muscles to sit up as straight as possible. My arms don't rest on my armrests of my wheelchair when I drive. So unless I stop at a traffic light, my arms are up and to 'attention' and moving.

[00:07:49] When people say that people with disabilities shouldn't be driving it illustrates that people don't understand. Because not only have we done more lessons and put more hours in. We've had a higher cost. Had to wait longer to get our car. I didn't have a choice of what model I got. There was only one model that could be converted around my wheelchair. So it wasn't like a pick a Suzuki Swift as a small little car to start off with. I had to learn how to drive basically a van truck. If I crash it, I'm stuffed. I can't just go get another one, can't just trade it in. So I would say I'm pretty careful on the roads.

[00:08:39] Before I got a car licence, I knew having the ability to drive would give me a new level of freedom that I'd never experienced before. I never really been alone. Particularly when you have a disability. I need or used to need a lot of help, even with personal care. So being alone was a new experience for me. When I finally got my Ps and I realised nobody was sitting next to me in the car. It's one of the best feelings I've ever experienced. It was a signal to me that I had achieved what I set out to do. That I could have the life I wanted to lead. For the first time in my life, I could go any way you guys could go, because if my car can go there, yours can. There aren't any steps on the road. It's the ultimate equaliser and the level of freedom, independence and equality that a car licence gave me, it's unquantifiable.

Peta sitting in her car cutting up her P plate stickers
Task complete! Peta in 2014 with her full car license

[00:09:56] As always, thank you so much for listening to this week's episode. I hope my explanation of how I use hand controls and how I learnt to drive with clear and concise. If you like, a visual as I said, I'm going to post a Reel on my Instagram, so I go check that out. Until next week, thanks for listening.


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