Why Don’t You Just Drive?: The Difficulty of Publicly Legitimizing the Needs of an Invisible Disability

When I was in my early and mid teens, I was really excited about learning to drive. When I finally got old enough to start drivers ed at 15, I anxiously waited for my mother to sign the permission form.

These were the days before my autism diagnosis. They were hard years for me because I was so often confused which led me to have melt downs. These meltdowns were then misinterpreted by my parents as immaturity and anger management issues. So when I initially asked for permission to start driver’s ed, my mother said no. She expanded on her reasoning by citing my melt downs and expressing concern that I would be prone to road rage and might hurt someone.

This was a devastating thing to hear from a parent, that I was considered dangerous enough to be a significant risk to someone’s safety. I also disagreed with her and autism diagnosis and misinterpretation of my behaviour aside, I can now say for certain that she was wrong.

When I was finally allowed to take driver’s ed, the biggest barrier in terms of training was my cerebral palsy. Not because I physically couldn’t drive or believed that I couldn’t. I had grown up around a family friend who had an amputation at the shoulder, so I was well aware that you didn’t need two fully functioning arms to drive safely. My driving instructor on the other hand didn’t get the memo.

He spent an uncomfortable amount of time focusing on my cerebral palsy. He developed selective vision where I was concerned. He claimed I couldn’t do hand over hand steering, even though I can and he’d definitely seen me do it. So he suggested I use a device he called a “spinner” which is a knob that attaches to the steering wheel so it can be steered one handed. I found the device uncomfortable to use. When I took it home, my dad was shocked that I had been given what he called a “suicide knob”, as they allow the wheel to be jerked so quickly that you can actually flip the car. They are actually illegal for this reason. A fact my instructor had failed to mention. It is possible that if I had wanted to pursue using it, I could have gotten a legal exemption as an accommodation but the whole situation was just bizarre, particularly because, I genuinely didn’t need it and actually found it more difficult to use.

When I completed my driver training, the instructor gave me the lowest possible passing grade claiming that in our in car sessions, I had consistently only come to rolling stops at stop signs. Not only do I not remember doing this, he never once mentioned it. You would think that if I was consistently (or even once) making an error that it would be his job to point it out so that I could correct the behaviour. This grade and its justification is made all the more suspicious by the fact that he gave another classmate an A grade even though she had run a red light during one of her sessions.

I would love to say that I got my license to spite him but I never did. It wasn’t a case of parental discouragement either. I just actually hate driving. I find it really stressful and overwhelming. My reaction to this stress is not as my mother predicted to become angry, I just want to pull over and not drive anymore. I am certain my reaction to driving is actually directly linked to the fact that I’m autistic. It is rather interesting that the thing my mother was convinced (even though she didn’t realize it at the time) would make me a danger to myself and others actually keeps me from driving and by extension myself and others safe. I don;t say that because I think I would have gotten road rage had I continued driving autism meltdowns and rage are two separate things and I don’t think I was ever at risk of road rage.

I am generally comfortable with the fact that I don’t and as far as I’m concerned can’t drive. I take public transit and that for the most part works for me. I have however noticed that other people seem to have a big problem with it.

As someone who almost exclusively relies on transit to get around, I have at times been both a critic of the system and an advocate for better service. This was especially true when I was living in Regina because the transit system there is truly awful. It doesn’t run nearly often enough, the routes are not integrated well so it can take over an hour to get somewhere you could drive in under ten minutes. Regina Transit also has gaps in service, there are places (like the airport) buses just don’t go. They also run a very limited service on Sundays and often don’t run at all on holidays.

All of these things were problematic to me. I couldn’t consider a job at the airport because the bus doesn’t go there. If I was working on a Sunday, I had to make sure my schedule fit within the limited scope of the Sunday service schedule. Working on a holiday was basically impossible, even though I would have loved to take advantage of the higher pay.

I am also completely aware that poor public transit isn’t just a disability issue. It also has environmental repercussions and disproportionately hurts the poor.

Because transit was how I got around in my daily life. I would bump up against these issues and I would complain about them. Unfortunately people almost never agreed or sympathized with me. Instead I would get asked “well if transit is so bad, why don’t you just get your license?”

Here is where people treat visible and invisible disabilities differently. If I was clearly physically incapable of driving, I would never get asked that question. People might actually be sympathetic and start to think critically about the social ramifications of a terrible transit system. In this instance I’m specifically talking about the reactions of people I know. While I’ve definitely gotten the “just drive” response from acquaintances and strangers, I would never be so hopeful as to assume they would be sympathetic to issues of disability and transit. I’ve seen far to many people complain about wheelchairs on buses to be that optimistic.

These reactions come predominantly from family and friends. All they see is that I’m not physically incapable of driving. When I try and explain how uncomfortable and stressed driving makes me, I get brushed off. Even though I have long since been diagnosed on the Autism spectrum. They still come back with “everyone gets stressed sometimes, you just need to learn to get over it.”

It’s a clear case of people won’t deny what they can see (like physical disability) but will continue to misunderstand what they can’t.

These interactions are frustrating on so many levels. There’s the denial of my own experiences and reality. There is also the complete dismissal of the wider issues of poor transit. The big one that I really can’t understand is I’ve told them I feel uncomfortable on the road so why under those circumstances are they so comfortable with the idea of me driving?

I may be certain of my low risk for road rage, I am however not remotely so convinced of my ability to remain calm and focused. I may be able to stop at red lights or stop signs. I may know the protocols for a four way stop but I am less convinced of my ability to be prepared for the unexpected like children darting into the street. I don’t feel comfortable driving, so why are other people so comfortable trying to force me into that situation? It just seems like a recipe for disaster to me.

I live in Toronto now and the transit system is much more comprehensive though far from perfect. Here however, using transit as your primary way to get around is common and acceptable. Here I can criticize the transit system and have people nod in agreement and join in with their own complaints.

I would however like to be able to visit my home town without having the transit system tell me where I can go and when only to have my own friends and family tell me that it is my own fault when I complain.


2 thoughts on “Why Don’t You Just Drive?: The Difficulty of Publicly Legitimizing the Needs of an Invisible Disability

  1. The moralistic attitude that people have towards driving really weirds me out. Like a few Autistic people I know, I got my license but then decided to stop driving because I hated it and did not feel that driving was safe for me. This consistently feels like something that I get pressure for and see other people feel pressured for, like if you don’t drive you should feel guilty (for having to ask other people for rides, or for being late because of unreliable public transit), and for some reason you don’t have a right to expect that public transit should be consistent.

    It really is sick when you think about it, though, because aside from environmental benefits, I’m protecting other people by not driving. It would be better if only really good drivers could drive, but bad public transit + social pressure makes it so everyone feels like they have to drive.


  2. So happy to see I am not the only autistic person with this issue. I have my drivers license but I have never been comfortable with driving. I can handle driving very simple, very familiar routes that aren’t too far away. I can’t just get in the car and drive someplace I’ve never been, not without watching someone else drive the route a few times and practicing it with someone else in the car. I can drive to my mom’s house from my house. I can drive to my doctor’s office, and I can drive to my dog’s training school. I used to be able to drive to work, except now I can’t work anymore– and when I could I was very limited in where I could take work because I couldn’t use the freeway. That’s it. We live in an area with no public transport at all, zilch, does not exist in our state, so I have to rely on other people to play caretaker and drive me, which they resent. I am less of an adult because I can’t drive. What’s worse, since I have my license and can do a little driving, nobody really believes that I “can’t” drive. People ask me to drive all the time and get angry when I have to make excuses for why I can’t. My husband and I have recently been talking about moving somewhere else, maybe even a different country, that would allow me to not have to drive anymore at all. It’s nice to see I’m not the only one. Agree with the other commenter about people being “moralistic” about driving. Really. I get treated like less of a person for not being able to drive. Less of a woman for letting my husband give me rides to places. I’ve been old enough to drive for 10 years and it’s getting really old.


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