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Driving Program Helps Stroke Patients Find their Independence

Recovering from illness or an injury can leave someone unable to drive and feeling dependent on loved-ones for transportation. The same feeling can occur in younger individuals with disabilities who are uncertain they will ever drive.

The NeuroRehab and Balance Center has a program designed to help these people get on the road safely, giving them back their independence.

"I think this program makes a huge difference in the patient's life. So many people relate independence and their success in life to being able to get around. Driving is a vital part of life for so many people," Team Lead and Driving Specialist Emily Haffner said.

What is the Driver Rehabilitation Program?

This program is taught by solely occupational therapists to get people on the road and behind the wheel. The staff evaluates patients who had an illness or injury to see if they can get back to driving and those who have never driven before due to a disability.

"It's designed to help anybody who has had any medical condition or disability that needs to be able to drive or wants to see if they can drive," Emily said.

The driving program is a licensed, class D disability driver training school. In addition to being occupational therapists, all instructors are licensed disability driver training school instructors.

Clients have a wide variety of disabilities and conditions, including:

  • Brain injury
  • Stroke
  • Learning disabilities
  • Memory/Cognitive issues
  • Amputation
  • Other conditions/situations that warrant a driving evaluation

Patient evaluation

Patients are evaluated to see the level of their current driving skills and ability. The evaluation has two parts: first, there is a clinical evaluation and then an on-road assessment. During the clinical assessment, the staff reviews the person's medical and driving history. They also check through skills needed to drive, like visual scanning and reaction time.

"I tell people we are looking for red flags, anything that is functioning out of the ordinary, things that might impact their driving safety," Emily said. "That helps us to know what to look for when we take them on the road, or we can determine that they are not safe enough to go on the road because they're not doing well enough in the clinic."  

As part of the clinical assessment, they utilize a driving simulator to test these skills. An option even exists where patients can use the simulator as a training instrument when appropriate. This gives patients an option to practice their driving skills before even hitting the road.

Once the patient graduates to the driving evaluation, they can get comfortable with the vehicle in the parking lot before moving onto low traffic areas. If they complete that portion of the test, the driving specialist will take the patient to higher traffic areas.

Participants must be at least 16 years old and have a valid license or temporary permit to complete any of the driving parts of the evaluation.

Next steps

For most patients, the NeuroRehab and Balance Center sends the reports back over to doctors and clears them to drive on the road. For some patients, they recommend driving retirement if they determine the driver is no longer safe behind the wheel.

Staff with the program will talk about alternative ways of getting around, like public transportation. Some people go into a training process, which might include driving adaptations.

"We’ll train people with hand controls or left foot accelerators—different types of equipment to allow them to drive differently, but still allow them to get back in the car and drive independently again,” Emily said.

The program helps physicians make decisions about whether a patient should be driving or not. It also helps to put family members' worries at ease when they worry their loved one should no longer be driving.

Impact on patients

The Driver Rehabilitation Program can have a significant impact on a patient’s life. It can give them the authority to start driving again, the tools needed to get back on the road and ensure they are safe behind the wheel.

“What we do helps keep people safe, it gives families peace of mind when they’re starting to question their loved one is safe on the road, and we even help with the transition when they do have to stop,” Emily said.

To learn more about the NeuroRehab and Balance Center and services offered through the driver program, visit Driver Rehabilitation Program.