Here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming book, No Spring Chicken: Stories and Advice from a Wild Handicapper on Aging and Disability. Some people may not know that the physical aspects of driving a car can be a challenge for a person with even partial paralysis.
As a teenager and thereafter, I had to drive crossing my left leg in front of my right and sitting a little bit sideways and using my left foot for both the accelerator and the brake, since my right leg is mostly paralyzed and my foot is entirely paralyzed. (Well, I can imperceptibly move a couple of toes. I wrote about my futile efforts to improve that in my first book. Motor nerve damage is permanent.)
I have never had any ankle motion in my right foot, so forget pressing it down on an accelerator. I was only able to use my right foot in that way if I pushed from way up in the hip, which was extremely tiring and provided almost no control.
My crossover method cannot be done in a car with a very low steering shaft, so some rental cars have never been possible for me to drive at all; plus, hitting one’s knee on the shaft over and over is pretty distracting, and bruising. I tried driving stick shift in my childhood friend, Daralyn’s, car in my teens, pushing my right foot on the accelerator from the hip. It was scary for both of us and proved unrealistic even out on the many straight country roads in the California Central Valley’s flat Sutter County. So, I have never owned a car that was not automatic.
After I met my second (and current) husband, Richard, on New Year’s Eve, 1992, we began a sixty-mile commuter relationship of five years—ridin’ on the “Freeway of Love,” as Aretha sang. Driving with my left foot crossed over on those long, frequent drives started to give me back pain, so I quickly decided to get a left-foot accelerator installed in my car, which also was my first vehicle with cruise control.
You can’t just show up at your local mechanic’s shop to get an adaptive accelerator. In fact, there are perhaps two places in the San Francisco Bay Area that install left-foot accelerator pedals. This is a relatively simple operation, but it can take a few hours, due to the placement of the mounting bolts under the chassis. The installation includes the addition of an apparatus inside on the floorboard that transfers the acceleration action from the usual right side accelerator pedal to the driver’s left side with the implementation of a connecting bar. Conveniently, the interior device is easily removable—I can practically do it with one hand, and I’m a weakling—so even after installation, other people can drive the car without having to learn to drive “left-footed.”
This pedal adaptation, though perhaps seemingly dry in its description, has been a liberating experience. Hybrid vehicles such as the one I drive currently present more issues for installation, but even with them it can be done.
I wish I had known about this adaptation when I was younger. Having it sooner might have saved some wear and tear on my arthritic back and allowed me to drive more and farther as a young adult. I knew there were hand controls for people who were paraplegic, and there may also have been left-foot pedal arrangements way back in the late 1960s, when I learned to drive, but I had not heard of this possibility then.
The combination of an adapted accelerator and cruise control makes it possible for me to drive for longer than a half-hour without pain. However, I still cannot drive more than about ninety minutes per day without tendon pain repercussions and extreme fatigue, now that I’m older. I’m just glad to be able to get in the car and go!