Programme is helping to put disabled in the driving seat

Three specially trained instructors and a modified car at the Emirates Driving Institute in Dubai represent the country's first structured programme for disabled motorists.

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DUBAI // Aspiring drivers with disabilities now have the chance to earn their licences. The three specially trained instructors and a modified car at the Emirates Driving Institute represent the first structured programme for disabled drivers, the institute's general manager Peter Richardson said. Two people have signed up to the programme since it was introduced a month ago. One of them, Malik Yousaf Iqbal, a Pakistani, suffered from polio when he was seven and lost strength in his legs. He was the first driver in Pakistan to obtain a special driving licence, but it had expired by the time he arrived in the UAE. So he began a year-long bid to earn his licence from the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA). "I went to the RTA and told them I am totally paralysed with my legs, and I needed a handicapped car," he said. "After eight months, I was told they had a department for handicapped driving, and ever since I have been telling other disabled people that it is possible to get a licence."

Mr Richardson said that previously, disabled motorists had to apply individually to the police or RTA for licences. "If they were successful and won the necessary approval by letter from the authorities they would have the testing and the training done in their own modified vehicle. It has happened, but very rarely. There has always been a provision, but done by a way of exception rather than process." Now, the first step for disabled drivers is to notify either the RTA or the Emirates Driving Institute, then undergo a medical check at Rashid Hospital. The applicant then gets a certificate of no objection from the RTA, which he or she then presents to the Emirates Driving Institute. "The bottom line is they will have to meet the same criteria for the test as any other driver," he added. "But more importantly, its about understanding people's difficulties and obstacles, so their physical difficulties don't get confused or mistaken for their driving habits. It's an attempt that these guys get a fair crack of the whip on test day."

Novice drivers will have to undergo 40 hours of lessons before sitting for their test. Drivers with two to five years' experience of driving elsewhere, such as Mr Iqbal, must take 30 hours of lessons, while those with more than five years' experience must have 20 hours. The modified training vehicle features a knob on the steering wheel and a throttle instead of standard gas and brake pedals. The throttle also has buttons for indicators and windscreen wipers, and allows the driver to shift into reverse. "These guys are no different than anybody else," Mr Richardson said. "Physically, if you push a clutch with your foot, hand or even your head, it all takes practice. The instructors have the same task to do with any student." The second person to sign up was Anshumali Bansal. "With Mr Bansal, we had a look at him, he had a look at the car, and we know from the first day he looked good for this programme. He then went through the recognised process," Mr Richardson said. Mr Bansal drove a modified scooter in his native India but was told before he moved to Dubai last year that a disabled driving course would soon be available. He took his first lesson yesterday. "It is the most important thing for me," he said. "Daily routines like going to the office or even going to the market, I have to rely on a friend to pick me up or get a taxi or bus. I have to be and want to be dependent." Mr Iqbal also wants more independence and expects that once he gets his licence.

"I want to explore the UAE and travel the GCC," Mr Iqbal said. "I would like a nice sports car. However, the first thing is that car is [usable] for me and it is safe. "The RTA asked me about what car I was going to drive when I first tried to apply for a licence. I told them: 'Don't ask me about a car. I want a licence. That is my need. It will help me for work and I don't have to find a cab while waiting in the heat'," Mr Iqbal said. Both he and Mr Bansal expect to take their exams in the coming months. Mr Richardson said this training was the first step in a much larger programme for the institute. "When we all get better, then we can all take it up it one level at a time," he said. "Someday we will be offering the service to somebody without a conventional steering wheel. ... When they get in a car and drive down the road, we are equals. They have met all the same standards and requirements as we have. All you need is a 'smile-o-meter' to see how happy they are when they get behind the wheel." eharnan@thenational.ae