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Driving and Learning Disabilities

By: Dale S. Brown

John, a handsome eighteen-year-old teenager, was facing serious problems learning to drive. After failing his first driving test, he realized he would have to learn driving the same slow, steady, and disciplined way that he had learned to read. How his friends in the computer club would have laughed at him if they had seen him drilling himself on the location of the accelerator and brake! Or practicing putting the car in park, reverse, neutral, and drive and memorizing which gear was which- to say nothing of the endless hours of driving in empty parking lots on Sundays with his father to associate the movements of the steering wheel with the movements of the car.

His parents were concerned. They thought that their problems were over when their intelligent, but academically untalented, youngster had graduated from high school. But his mother still had to chauffer him everywhere except when he could find rides with friends.

John has perceptual problems, one of the major causes of learning disabilities. Perceptual problems can cause great difficulty in learning to drive. People with perceptual problems receive inaccurate information through their senses and/or have trouble processing that information. Like static on the radio, or a bad TV picture, the information becomes garbled as it travels from the eye, ear, or skin to the brain.

Although he acted brave outwardly, John found it terrifying an overwhelming to drive when he was practicing in his drivers' education class. He felt as if there was too much going on at once. The seat shook, the car seemed to lurch forward when he touched the accelerator, and the road, the fence around the driving range, and the grass seemed to be moving quickly around the car. The car was roaring, the driving instructor was shouting, and his hands were slick with sweat from gripping the steering wheel. His fellow students, on the other hand, calmed down after some initial nervousness.

John's problems were due to his difficulty in controlling his attention. Most people automatically sort out the important sensations from the irrelevant ones. But John's brain could not do that with ease. He was paying attention to everything at once and feeling like a nervous wreck. He had to spend a lot of time driving around the parking lot with his father before he could become relaxed, alert, and aware. (Some people with perceptual problems have the opposite reaction. The have to push themselves to pay enough attention and see and hear what they need to drive.)

John also had trouble seeing accurately and associating the movements of his hands on the steering wheel with the movement of the car. As a youngster, he had difficulty learning to ride a bike and kept falling down. Now he had to master a larger more dangerous vehicle.

After he practiced for awhile with his father, his mother found him a patient driving instructor with a dual control car. The teacher also had a learning disabled child and had some understanding of John's difficulties. John practiced driving the car along a winding but fairly flat road, so he leaned to turn the steering wheel the right amount for each twist of the street. Then he practiced on a hilly but straight road to learn to keep a constant speed by pressing down on the accelerator when he went dup a hill and releasing it a bit going down. Then he practiced on roads that were both hilly and winding. This step-by-step learning process is the best way to teach learning disabled people. The driving instructor carefully taught him turns, backing up, right-of-way rules, and parallel parking in a similar way.

John also had difficulty intuitively knowing left from right. That's why he had to work hard learning the difference between the accelerator and brake. He sat down with tow phone books at his feet, marking one "accelerator" and the other "brake." He would put his right foot on the "accelerator" and move his body forward to remind himself o the car moving forward. Then he'd move his right foot to the "brake" and sit at attention to remind himself of stopping. He also practiced left and right turns over and over again to remember that right turns were close to the curb (right's tight) and that left turns were loose. He could even stop at corners while he was walking and pretend he was turning left or right in a car and imagine what steps he would go through.

John spent the summer after his high school graduation and about a semester of college practicing his driving. He showed much courage and determination, particularly when you consider that his disability was invisible. Nobody but his parents and his driving instructor recognized his extra effort. He was enormously proud when he finally passed his driving test and received his license. The support that John received is unusual. Most learning disabled people have to struggle through drivers' education class after driver' education class until they learn or run out of money. Professionals in the field have not recognized driving difficulties as a problem worthy of effort. Driver educators have not been exposed to current information on learning disabilities.

Because of the help of his family and his own disciplined efforts, he is a safe and responsible driver today. He commutes to and from his job and drives his wife and small children to outings. In some ways, he still has to be very careful. He tries to get his wife or a companion to do the navigation and will not drive when he is exhausted or upset.

Nevertheless, he has not had an accident since he received his license. As a matter of fact, he is so careful, he hasn't even gotten a speeding ticket, a record many non-disabled drivers would envy.

Brown, Dale. "Driving and Learning Disabilities." Newsbriefs March-April 1985: 12, 15. Reprinted with permission from Dale S. Brown.