In India, there are at least a dozen driving schools even in the smallest of towns. The number, of course, is much higher in big cities and metros. And yet, there are only a handful of institutes who are equipped to extend their services to persons with disabilities (PwD).
In most cases, explains Anita Sharma, who runs one such facility called On My Own, either the driving schools do not have trained staff to handle every type of disability or they aren’t aware altogether that it is possible for PwD to drive a car on their own.
Anita, however, lists one third (and more important) hindering factor: the non-availability of retrofitted cars. Retrofitting is the adoption of new technology in order to enhance the efficiency of older systems, making them compatible with the changing environment. Retrofitted cars, hence, are nothing but modified cars with accelerators and brakes placed fitted to the steering wheel rather than on the car’s pedalling board.
With these type of cars, depending on an individual’s proficiency with driving and the level of disability, it becomes a lot easier to learn driving. According to Anita, it takes a minimum of five and a maximum of 21 sessions for the PwD to learn driving.
Anita, who has a PhD from IIM Indore in Disability and Entrepreneurship, was formerly an assistant professor at IIM-Amritsar. She started the driving school in 2017 in Amritsar, and later shifted to her hometown Jaipur, where On My Own has expanded its operations.
A life skill like no other
There is a slew of reasons why Anita has been successful in establishing a trust factor as a driving teacher for the differently abled. One of them being her personal journey, surviving a polio attack at a very young age. When she was just six months old, Anita’s lower limbs got affected and she became paralysed from the waist below.
Although multiple surgeries allowed Anita to walk with the help of crutches and calipers, her mobility was still limited and her parents used to drive her around.
“My mother learnt driving because of me, to pick me up and drop me to schools, college, tuitions, and so many other places. In fact, my father taught her, and she taught me,” Anita recalls.
In 2001, however, things started to change for the better. Having picked up driving from her mother, Anita bought her first two-wheeler that year. And as she says, that’s when her “journey to independent mobility started.”
Today she owns two retrofitted cars - one she bought in 2009 and the other one in 2016. One of them is manual transmission with hand controls and the other one is automatic transmission with hand controls. At ‘On My Own’ driving school, the 38-year-old entrepreneur uses the automatic car. She feels that now that these vehicles are easily available and affordable, it’s better to use automatic cars as they do away with a lot of unnecessary hassles relating to clutch and gear.
So far, around 150 people with disabilities have benefitted from her driving lessons, thus regaining independent mobility through driving.
Notably, the driving school started as a friendly gesture, when Anita agreed to teach a friend of her friend to drive a retrofitted car.
Anita recalls that the incident made her realise that there are little to no facilities available in the country for teaching a differently abled person how to drive. She called around 2000 driving schools at the time, only to find that none of them offered lessons to people with reduced mobility due to lack of awareness and/or resources. By the time Anita moved to Amritsar in 2018 to join IIM-Amritsar as an assistant professor, however, she had started giving the idea a serious thought. She even shared a post on a Facebook page offering driving lessons to PwD.
“There has been no looking back since then,” she says, “People constantly contact me about the lessons. I even had a close collaboration with the Chandigarh Rehabilitation Centre.”
Focus on the strength, not the disability
As part of her work at On My Own, Anita often travels to different cities to offer training in driving to PwD.
“From Amritsar to Chandigarh, I would travel every fortnight, train people and come back,” she says adding, “Since I am a person with disability, from my own journey, I have realised how driving has given me a certain freedom and independence. I would like others with disabilities to enjoy this same freedom and independence.”
Opining that it’s all about the strength, and not the disability, Anita shared an experience she had with a disabled man had met at the Chandigarh Rehabilitation Centre. While this person’s mobility was affected to a certain extent by a spinal cord injury, he could walk and even had control on his foot. Since he was able to maneuver his foot, he could manage to drive without any modifications. Under Anita’s guidance, it took him only two-three hours, in fact, to get back to driving.
However, re-adapting to circumstances after one’s mobility is reduced is a long, and often lonely, journey- one that Anita hopes to support, through her driving school and with a little help from the friends and family of persons with disability.
(Edited by Athira Nair)