Free At Last…

Photo of a temporary G2 license with "Free at last" written over top

Growing up in rural Ontario, I always dreamt of one day driving. From a young age I was told this dream would likely never come true, as my limited strength and mobility would make it all but impossible to operate a vehicle without heavy modification. My 16th birthday came and passed and, unlike all of my friends, I didn’t go in to write my G1 test or begin learning to drive. After looking into it we decided it was simply too expensive, likely over $100,000, with almost no government or community support to finance that type of investment. For the rest of my teenage years I either relied on the range of my electric wheelchair to get from point A to point B, or had my mom chauffer me around.

In 2002 I moved to the bustling city of London and thought things were looking up — this was a city with both public transit and accessible cabs! Shortly after arriving I discovered that while there was more accessible transportation in London than in my home town, the options were still quite limited…and therefore limiting. At that time, very few busses in London were accessible and there were only 2 accessible cabs for the whole city. Once again, I was left to do it myself. And I wasn’t alone — this was the experience of many with physical disabilities across the province.

That is why in 2008 I decided to take my wheelchair on the road for a 650km wheelchair marathon, showing how lacking the accessible transportation systems are in Ontario and urging local and provincial government to take a stand for people with disabilities and strengthen accessible infrastructure. After the trip, things started to improve and in many ways, I can’t believe how far we’ve come in only 4 years. But in the back of my mind there has always still been that dream: the dream to learn how to drive myself.

Well, I am happy to report that last Wednesday I successfully passed my G1-exit test, making me a licensed G2 driver! Free at last, free at last, God almighty, I am free at last!

A photo of the joystick and LCD screen used to control Jeff's van
Ground control to Major Tom, you have a sick ride.

For those curious, I am using a digital driving system produced by a company called Aevit, meaning I control my van using a joystick and LCD touch screen. With the help of Aevit and a series of mirrors to provide full vision of blind spots and merge lanes, the system greatly reduce my limitations to the point that I am able to drive like everyone else. This means, to many of your horror I’m sure, that I can now drive my vehicle alone, whenever I want, wherever I want. Together, the van and the modifications cost close to $130,000 along with around $20,000 for Occupational Therapists, driving instructors and travel associated with getting the proper equipment and learning how to use it. Certainly not a cheap endeavour…especially when there is less than $5000 of funding available for this type of equipment in Ontario.

But at the end of the day, it means one thing: freedom. A type of freedom I never thought I would have. The type of freedom that two or three times a day just bubbles up in my belly and leaves me grinning from ear to ear without a care in the world.

But how did this all happen? Given the lack of details I’ve provided here and other places, you may think it was overnight. Of course that isn’t the case, in fact the whole process took close to 2 years, and over the course of the next few weeks I have decided to produce a short series of blogs about my process of becoming a 29 year old adapted driver.

But before any of that, it is important to say thank you to some extremely special people who, without their help, this couldn’t have been even remotely possible.

  • A huge, huge thank you to Jen Brewe and Dan Harvey for putting together an amazing fundraiser for me MANY moons ago to help get this whole process started.
  • An enormous thank you to the team at St Elizabeth Hospital Drive Again program for walking me through the process and pointing me in all the right directions. An especially warm thank you to Robert, the driving instructor who taught me how to not die while driving in Toronto.
  • A big merci beaucoup to Alyssa Merilees of Constance-Lethbridge Rehab Hospital in Montreal for letting me test drive their vehicle.
  • Thank you to the team at Sparrowhawk for putting together the vehicle that has changed my life almost as much as my first wheelchair.
  • And finally, the group of people I cannot thank enough, Duncan Hawthorne and James Scongack of Bruce Power and all of Port Elgin Rotary for pulling together the huge amount of funds to make this all possible. Seriously, without you this could have never happened and I’m forever indebted to you. Again.

By Jeffrey Preston

Born with a rare neuromuscular myopathy, Jeff has spent his life dedicated to advocating for himself and others with disabilities. With a PhD in Media Studies from Western University, Jeff's research focuses on the representation of disability in popular and digital culture. Jeff is currently an Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at King's University College @ Western University in London, ON.

One reply on “Free At Last…”

Congratulations! Great news!  I t is great to see that you now have the freedom that all of the rest of us take for granted.