Lifelong Star Wars film fan Chris Welch, 48 from Poole, has maintained driving independence thanks to the support of Driving Mobility and his assistance dog Obi.
Chris is a medically retired sales manager with five children, who has peripheral neuropathy. Despite significant problems with mobility and pain, Chris is a dedicated parent who supports his family with the help of Obi, his assistance dog. Obi, a three-year-old black Labrador, is named after a character in the popular Star Wars films – the Jedi Knight, Obi-wan Kenobi. Obi has been trained to help Chris with daily tasks such as dressing and fetching items, along with supporting him when out driving. Chris unfortunately experiences high levels of anxiety on a regular basis; however, Obi has the ability to sense stress and will always move safely and calmly alongside his owner to reassure him if needed in the car. As Chris has to renew his driving licence every three years due to his condition, he was instructed by the DVLA to attend a Driving Mobility centre for his regular ‘fitness-to-drive’ assessment. The centre closest to him was Wessex DriveAbility, accredited by Driving Mobility, based in Southampton.
Driving Mobility is a network of 21 independent centres, with over 70 outreach facilities, that provide clinically led, driving and mobility assessments for people with disabilities. Clients self-refer or are signposted to Driving Mobility from the DVLA, Motability, the Police, and healthcare professionals such as GPs. Each centre is either an independent charity or an NHS department which provides Approved Driving Instructors (ADIs) and Occupational Therapists (OTs). By completing an assessment, clients such as Chris, receive professional advice and guidance to remain mobile with the most appropriate driving adaptations, accessible vehicles or equipment such as mobility scooters and wheelchairs.
When Government restrictions due to the Covid pandemic were eased, Chris was impressed with the speed at which his assessment was arranged. He was able to visit Wessex DriveAbility within two weeks of booking an appointment. Chris and Obi drove from Poole to Southampton for their assessment and were immediately put at ease on arrival by the Wessex staff: “I was very anxious before my appointment, however Rachel and her team were amazing. As soon as Obi and I arrived, they understood my anxieties and did all they could to make me feel relaxed. They respected that Obi was ‘at work’ so didn’t give him any fuss and were really patient so I didn’t get stressed – I felt their care was sincere and genuine. When you have a disability, you feel like you are fighting for everything all of the time, commonly things that able-bodied people take for granted. This was so different at Wessex, they kept saying ‘they were on my side’ and I didn’t feel awkward or tense, I’d recommend them 100%.”
Chris’ assessment started with desk-based activities to check his cognitive abilities. He was assessed by an OT and ADI who also checked his general mobility and movement in relation to operating a car safely. Once this and an eyesight assessment were completed, Chris was accompanied on a 45-minute driving assessment around the outskirts of Southampton.
A car from the centre’s fleet was used for the assessment so Chris was given plenty of time to familiarise himself with the controls as he explains: “I’d never driven a Ford Focus before however it wasn’t a problem as we only set off when I felt totally comfortable. It helped I had Obi by my side who always travels upfront and wears his special seatbelt. The Covid safe procedures were very thorough – we all wore masks, the car had been thoroughly disinfected and we regularly hand sanitised. I was assessed driving along different types of roads and given various junctions and obstacles, such as parked cars, to negotiate. They checked things like my use of mirrors, road alignment and how I interacted with other road users. I was surprisingly calm throughout the experience in the end, I’d even say it was enjoyable despite the traffic being pretty busy.”
Chris returned to the centre and the final report was compiled by the Driving Mobility OT and ADI. For Chris it was a positive outcome in terms of driving – he was deemed fit to continue using a car independently, with Obi by his side of course. After the whole assessment was over, the Wessex team asked if they could give Obi lots of fuss, which they did, and he loved.
With the support of Driving Mobility, Chris can now continue to drive a VW Transporter with no specialist driving adaptations. However, as his condition is progressive, he may need assisted controls in the future which can be recommended by Wessex DriveAbility. Chris requires this eight-seater vehicle to transport his large family and Obi, which is vital during the summer months. As getting cold severely increases the pain in his legs, Chris tends to remain indoors at home as much as he can during the winter. Having the ability to drive is crucial to build ‘special memories in the sunshine for his children’ and to perform ‘dad duties’ which involves ferrying them to activities. Chris is used to being housebound and believes many people with disabilities can provide advice to people struggling with lockdowns caused by the pandemic. He fully recommends the companionship of a dog or pet as: “they make a huge difference to your mental health and wellbeing.”
In summary Chris remarks that the Wessex DriveAbility service is second to none: “They made me feel confident and helped me demonstrate that I could still drive safely. You do have doubts about your abilities, but their exceptional support reinforced I could do it! As a person with a disability, you do worry about losing your driving freedom as you have already lost so much. However disabled Star Wars actors such as Kenny Baker, who played the droid R2D2, and ‘Ewok’ Warwick Davis, helped me as a child respect people for who they are, irrespective of ability. I wasn’t born with a disability so have had to adapt – these guys have always inspired me. Those films were pure escapism for me during my childhood and still are to this day – hence calling my dog Obi. He really enjoyed his time with Driving Mobility, especially all the attention he received from the Wessex team. They were all so professionally brilliant and encouraged me all the way. I cannot sing their praises enough.”
Chris was approved to continue driving however some clients may be advised to seek further tuition or their licence is revoked. Not being able to drive a car does not mean independence is lost as each Driving Mobility centre can provide alternatives. These may include advice on using accessible public transport or ownership of a mobility scooter. Several centres also now provide a HUBs service which offers a comprehensive programme of guidance on all aspects of localised assisted transportation and accessible lifestyles.