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How To Get A Driver's License With A Low Vision Disability
Low Vision and Driving
In this article for SeeMeDrive.com I will outline what steps I took to get a driver's license despite having a lifelong low vision disability. We will take a look at what a good low vision doctor and determination can do so that you can realize your dream to legally drive a car.
Imagine my surprise when at the age of 39 I passed my MVA driver's license test and was legally able to drive for the first time! This is my story as to how it all happened and hope it helps those in a similar position. While my situation was vision related, this information should be useful to those who have suffered a stroke or an injury or even a young teenager looking to get their license for the first time. Driving can and will change your life so don't take it lightly.
Meeting the Low Vision Specialist
In September of 2001, only a few days after 9-11, I moved to Maryland from the New York Metro area of northern New Jersey to live with my girlfriend. Prior to my arrival my girlfriend's brother had injured his eye and she was driving him to the Wilmer Eye Institute at John Hopkins in Baltimore. She asked that I make an appointment with the same doctor to see what they could do for me. I promptly shot her down by saying that no eye doctor was able to help me as they all had said that I could not drive.
She never took no for an answer and I finally called to make an appointment and eventaully saw a doctor who immediately told me after the vision test that I could not drive. I figured I had nothing to lose so I asked if they had a low vision specialist or department. He said yes, and I insisted to have an appointment made.
I soon received a large manila envelope in the mail requesting health info and questionnaires to fill out and return. About a week or so later I receive a phone call from a very nice woman at John Hopkins / Wilmer Eye Institute who conducted a telephone interview with me that lasted around two hours. She was very thorough and asked about my vision, how it affected my daily life and most of all what I would like to accomplish. I told her that I wanted to drive and instead of her saying no, she asked probing questions about why I wanted to drive, how I felt while I was in a car, what difficulties I experienced... She really listened to my experiences and needs and left me with a very good feeling. I finished the phone interview and didn't think anything of it as I had relegated myself into thinking I would never drive.
An appointment to see low vision specialist William L. Park, O.D., F.A.A.O. was arranged for November. My girlfriend drove me to Baltimore and after some extensive vision testing (field of vision, contrast...) we finally got to meet Dr. Park. He proceeded with his testing and asked me many questions. This eye exam / vision exam was like no other I had been to before. Just like the phone interview, he was very attentive asking probing questions and I could sense he might be trying to analyze my personality as well as my vision. I couldn't quite understand it then, but it all became apparent at the end of the testing.
After he finished checking my eyes and answering all my questions he casually asks me if I would like to drive! I couldn't believe what I was hearing... I must have looked at him in disbelief or something because he reiterated his statement and continued to tell me that I was well within the legal requirements to drive in the state of Maryland and would I like to go through the process of getting a driver's license! I didn't know what to say. In the back of my mind I was saying to myself it must be a mistake or a horrible joke. It wasn't.
The Contact Lenses Allowed Me To Meet the Driving Requirements
With the tinted contact lenses he had just prescribed, my vision would be around 20/60-20/70 and I would be eligible to go up for review by a special group of Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration MVA doctors and officails. If they accepted my application then I would go up the chain of testing and review and eventually be able to apply for a learner's permit.
Doctor Park explained what was required of me and that he would assist every step of the way. He felt very confident that I would be able to drive, but I just couldn't believe what I was hearing. In fact he must have thought I was ungrateful or something because I showed little emotion. My girlfriend showed more emotion by hugging and thanking Dr. Park while I just stood there dumbfounded. My girlfriend kept asking me, "Aren't you happy? This is unbelievable..." It wasn't till I got into the car and called my Mom to tell her the good news that I broke down and started crying with joy.
Dr. Park had warned me that the low vision driving process wasn't going to be easy and could take as long as a year for the review board to make its decision and that there were no guarantees. Nonetheless, he felt very good about my chances to drive and even went as far as saying that I could have been driving a lot sooner. My lifelong dream to drive a car and be independent was starting to unfold and it felt great.
A week or two later I went back to Wilmer Eye Institute to be fitted with my new contacts lenses. They had to be custom made because of my astigmatism. The contacts are soft lenses with a light blue tint in the center to help with my sensitivity to light and are easy to maintain and do a great job in making my vision clear.
Getting Permission To Drive From the Motor Vehicle Officials
From that point on I got into the passenger seat as though I would be driving it and paying even more attention to the road than ever before. As I had been doing lots of long distance bicycling since a kid and my dad was a bus driver, I had a great head start so the prospect of driving a car didn't faze me that much. In fact, it was my bike riding experience that I feel helped the most in my quest to get my driver's license and help me be a better and safe driver.
Several letters from the Motor Vehicle Administration followed asking for additonal information. In the Spring of 2002 I received a letter asking me to go to Baltimore to be tested by a physical rehabilitation specialist. When I arrived I was given a battery of memory, visual and psychological tests. The woman giving the tests was very nice and told me that I did very well, but that I had to wait for the official results.
Approved To Drive! Getting the Learner's Permit
I believe it was around May or June of 2002 that I received the good news via a letter from the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) that I had been approved by the board and that I now had permission to go to my local MVA office and apply for a learner's permit! It was truly happening, I was on my way to getting my driver's license. The only restriction I had was that the car needed two outside mirrors, which most cars have nowadays. There was no travel or night time restrictions of any kind so I was good to go anywhere at anytime.
I soon had my learner's permit and my girlfriend agreed to take me out in her Toyota Corolla to practice driving. I was nervous, but I felt confident and the Toyota Corolla is a very manageable car to drive. I practiced all summer and took my driver's ed classes. The driver's education classes is where I ran into some very nasty and closed minded people.
Learning How To Drive With Low Vision
There was a driving school that had instructors trained to work with those with disabilities, but it was about two hours away and thus I had to settle for one nearby that I could ride my bike to.
Driver's education consisted of two weeks of classroom time studying all there was to driving a car. This was then followed by a few hours of behind the wheel time. It was the behind the wheel portion that I had to tell my instructor about my vision disability. I could easily see that he wanted out despite his taking me for a quick run through a parking lot. After that first one hour session he never responded to my phone calls and neither did the driving school. I waited and waited for a few weeks, but it became obvious they were not going to do anything. I called again and the woman once again tried giving me the run around and said to wait. I insisted to speak with someone in charge now and was booked with another instructor. Thankfully he took my vision into consideration by giving me tips, showing me blind spots that I might be more susceptible to... He was a very good teacher and I completed my driver's ed classes successfully.
My learner's permit was good through November, 2002 so I did as much practicing as I could and then went for my final road exam to acquire my provisional driver's license.
Going For the Road Test
One of the areas that I was really good at was parallel parking so it came as a shock when I failed my first road exam because I touched the pylon in front of the car while parking. The silly thing was that I had already successfully parked the car, but I tried to make it "better" and that is when I touched the pylon. The MVA official said I had done everything perfectly and felt sorry for me, but he said I had to come back and retake the test.
Returned a few days later on a very stormy and wet morning to retake the road test. Visibility was not great, it was raining hard and I thought I would surely flunk now, but I passed. Went inside and waited on line to have my photo taken and receive my provisional license. Here I was at the age of 39 and I was finally able to drive. I felt and continue to feel so alive.
- Saw Dr. Park at Wilmer / John Hopkins in Baltimore for first time in November 2001
- Received approval from Dr. Raleigh and Nancy Snowden of the Maryland MVA around May/June 2002
- Took a two week behind the wheel course through a local driving school in July 2002
- Passed my roadtest at MVA and received my provisional license in Nov 2002
In May of 2004 I finally decided to take the plunge and buy my first car, a 2000 Toyota Camry XLE with V6 engine, leather, sunroof... everything I had always wanted. My younger brother said I was acting like a high school kid with his first car and he was right. I was living through all the things I had missed. I hope that you may experience this as well!
One of my most memorable experiences was when I went back to New Jersey to visit family and actually drove my Mom to my sister's house. All those years she had gone out of her way to drive me places and here I was now finally able to return the favor so to speak. She was so happy and proud of me. Still chokes me up when I think about it.
I hope I've gotten you psyched at the possibility of driving and are ready to contact a local low vision specialist. In the meantime, a wonderful source of information for visually disabled drivers is "Driving With Confidence: A Practical Guide to Driving With Low Vision" by Eli Peli and Doron Peli. It contains 192 pages of solid information and resources in LARGE type. Highly recommended as the first step in getting your driver's license.
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Please understand that not every person with low vision is able to drive. This is a very serious matter that needs to be discussed with those close to you and your low vision doctor. Not only must you have vision good enough for doctors to correct, but you must also be willing to accept the challenge and go through what can be a long and arduous process that can last a year or more. This site is NOT a medical or an authoritative driving site nor affiliated with any and information contained in it does not override professional advice. Every person has different needs and capabilities so use this site merely as a stepping stone and discuss everything with your doctor, DMV official, auto mechanic... first! See the many topics below and feel free to add your driving comments and share your experience. If you know of anyone who would benefit from this site please pass it on to them.