Driving, an activity most take for granted, is a lease of life for physically challenged people. While we complain about traffic snarls and delays, they worry about adapting their car to disabilities and learning to drive with unconventional controls.

So you complain about traffic jams, lengthy alternative routes, parking woes, clogged roundabouts and dangerous intersections. You probably use these complaints in conversational gambits and tidbits too.

But if you compare notes with a physically challenged driver, your list of complaints is bound to be lopsided his longer, weightier and graver than yours.

Sure, he battles the same traffic jams, congested roads, parking woes, et al. He also overcomes difficulties in licensing procedures, adapting his car to his disability and learning to drive with unconventional controls. Yet he rarely complains.

When Adnan Yousuf Abdullah, a confident, soft-spoken Emirati, finds his designated parking slot usurped by a car that doesn't rightfully belong there, he doesn't mind waiting for the driver to leave if he isn't pressed for time. When he is, he enlists help from security personnel.

"It happens a lot though," he says ruefully, speaking about the violation of parking spaces for people with special needs.

Now reverse the circumstances. If you face a similar scenario, you would probably fly off the handle, and it would take a very earnest apology to extenuate your outburst.

However, Abdullah can do little to mitigate such a situation, and as such, is inconvenienced by the insensitive actions of regular drivers.

Driving and its related functions can be a nightmare for most of us, but for those like Abdullah, 23, whose reality is defined and determined by disability, it is a dream come true. Driving is freedom a form of social emancipation that grants mobility and purpose. It is a sanative activity for low spirits, a votive act of aspirations.

Several physically challenged people overcome obstacles to live a life with the convenience of mobility sadly, an amenity most of us take for granted.

He signed up for driving lessons for a month-and-a-half at the Sharjah Police Academy despite his lower limb paralysis. Today he drives to work at the Dubai Police headquarters in Al Ghusais, where he is an administrative assistant, and runs errands when necessary.

The acceleration and braking adaptations in his Toyota Camry have made driving easy, comfortable and safe. "It was done by a Sharjah-based friend," says Abdullah, slightly reticent to divulge further details. "Many go to him for various adaptations."

In terms of mobility and conveniences in the UAE, he says, the government has taken several measures to provide assistance and tackle flagrant traffic offences, but "we need more [spaces] and facilities".

Abdullah's advice for physically challenged drivers is to believe that "anything is possible if you have the will".

Speaking of doughty will, there is the story of seven-year-old Safwat, who has Congenital Muscular Dystrophy (CMD).

However, despite his condition, a degenerative disease that affects voluntary muscles, he is energetic and playful. He is tops in his class, plays with his classmates and friends and participates in various school activities. He is a pro at solving jigsaw puzzles and cannot get enough of Nintendo DS, PlayStation and Game Boy. He is also quite the prankster and joker, prone to mischief making like most boys his age.

He enthuses, "I want to be an engineer like my grandfathers."

He is, as his father Dr Hesham S. Farahat says, more spirited and determined than most adults. His son moves around in a powered wheelchair, but doesn't allow his disability to atrophy his talent or "come between him and the enjoyment of life".

When the Farahat family moved from California four years ago, Safwat's father was disappointed with the lack of facilities available in the UAE for physically challenged people.

There is a hint of asperity in his voice when he speaks about it. "I was frustrated at many levels from sourcing a wheelchair to finding a disabled-access vehicle. A wheelchair is not a grocery or supermarket product; it needs proper assessment."

Thus, fuelled by strong parental emotion and the axiomatic shortage of services in medical equipment and mobility solutions, Dr Farahat, area manager of the Al Masaood Healthcare Est, Al Masaood Group in Abu Dhabi, conceived the idea for a Mobility division.

"My son was the driving force behind the business idea. I wanted to mobilise him as much as possible so he can enjoy a full life. I also realised there must be several physically challenged people in dire need of mobility solutions," he says.

Dr Farahat, now a paladin of the cause, set up the division three years ago. He deals with physically challenged people to improve their condition.

"As long as the person has good cognition [mental awareness], mobility is not an issue," he says. The division works with a team of doctors, occupational therapists and biomedical engineers to provide a wide range of mobility products from handicapped-accessible vehicles to assisted-driving solutions, recreational mobility equipment and platform lifts and hoists.

Dr Farahat believes disability can be overcome with the right tools. "The person can then be as productive and useful in society as any normal person."

Transportation, he says, is one of the most sought-after mobility solutions for physically-challenged people.

Most adaptations and modifications are carried out by private workshops. In addition, a few do not scruple to perform untested technical changes, often detrimental to safety and health.

There are, as expected, several "small players" who spuriously claim to be specialists. Dr Farahat warns they do not concern themselves with customer, vehicle or road safety nor carry out adaptations according to the driver's disability.

By way of example, he speaks of the common low-cost ramps in wheelchair-access vehicles. "These enable a physically challenged person to enter [the vehicle]. However rarely do they have restraining systems to tie down the wheelchair once inside."

He says the market suffers from a proliferation of low-quality products. This problem is compounded by a lack of public awareness and regulation against unprincipled and exploitative technicians.

Al Masaood Mobility division, he says, is the only one in the region that offers vehicle conversions in cooperation with car manufacturers and government organisations.

The company works closely with driving schools including Emirates Driving Company (EDC) and Emirates Driving Institute (EDI) in the UAE to provide vehicle adaptations and training for instructors when needed. It is also negotiating with a few car rental firms.

"Our conversions are certified by General Motors [GM] and Chrysler. Our installations are crash-tested and approved by the US and/or EU DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] and the RTA [Roads and Transport Authority]," he says.

There are several parts of a vehicle that can be adapted to disability and lifestyle requirements. Once a medical assessment is made whether the physically-challenged person is able to drive the company customises various controls and equipment.

Adaptations are classified under disabled access and assisted driving. (See sidebar p31.) "A swivel seat [swings out of the vehicle, making it easier to enter or exit] is an example of disabled-access adaptation. Assisted-driving adaptations include hand controls with/without electronic functions, steering wheel spinner [hand operated control to accelerate and brake] and foot steering," he says.

At the division, technical experts assess a customer's needs to offer suitable adaptations and options. "Whenever needed, demo units are taken to a client so he can try it. Once complete, the vehicle is delivered by a specialist, and the client is trained to use the adaptations," he says.

Unfortunately, misplaced ideas concerning car adaptations abound. A common one states that adaptations interfere with existing safety systems.

Most misconceptions can be imputed to adaptations done by unreliable workshops, says Dr Farahat. "For instance, if a driver has to perform several hand-controlled operations simultaneously, it is ideal to have a steering wheel spinner and electronic function controls. He can use one hand to accelerate and brake and the other to steer and control."

Observably, adaptations are not restricted to physically challenged drivers. They are also done to provide mobility to physically handicapped non-drivers and the elderly.

"This gives them with the freedom to perform everyday activities, prevent them from the humiliation and abasement of being carried in/out of vehicles in public and improve quality of life."

"There is a stigma," he says, generated internally (family members) and externally (public). "Sadly many families are ashamed and aren't very accepting of a physically challenged relative. The public too needs to be educated on how to manage and treat people with disability."

There is gravitas in his tone when he talks about the dearth of conveniences for physically challenged people. "As a result they show less interest in public interaction."

He adds, "Serving physically challenged people requires patience, cooperation and special treatment. Unlike normal clients, they tend . to develop an emotional bond with the salesperson or technician. In other words, the relationship doesn't end with a sale."

He stresses the need for strict laws to prevent physically challenged drivers from using walking aids (crutches) to operate accelerator and brake pedals or drive a vehicle if they have a severe disability or spasticity. "Such drivers can be a hazard to themselves and others."

So how can you help? You can be a little more accepting and encouraging towards those who deal with a disability, even if you never meet people like Abdullah and Safwat or Dr Farahat. Even if you never experience firsthand their everyday trials and triumphs or witness what it is to move with assistance.

Licence and parking permit categories

According to the RTA, there are four types of licences for physically challenged drivers:

Blue is issued for three years to people with permanent disability.

Red is issued for one to six months to people with temporary disability.

Green is issued for one year to institutions or to those centres (Not for Profit Organisations) that provide free services to physically-challenged people. Yellow is issued for three months to tourists with disabilities who are visiting.

The Special Needs Parking Card or Handicapped Parking Permit also follows the above categorisation.

A few supporting documents for licences and permits include: Medical report from government hospitals and centres for special needs attested by the Ministry of Health.

Medical report attested by the embassy or diplomatic entity for tourists.

Adaptations: A technical solution

Various parts of a vehicle like point of entry, seats, steering, accelerator and brake pedals, and electronic functions (direction indicators, wipers, lights, etc) can be adapted according to the type of disability.

"Regarding what is permitted or not, there aren't set regulations as yet," says Dr Hesham S. Farahat, area manager of the Al Masaood Healthcare Est, Al Masaood Group, Abu Dhabi. He says adaptations are customised to cater to any type of disability.

"It depends on the lifestyle of the physically challenged person. Do you want to transport him or does he want to drive? With modern technology, I believe disability can be overcome."

The Mobility division of Al Masaood Healthcare Est caters to various kinds of disability including lower and upper limb amputation, lower body paralysis, upper and lower body deformation, spina bifida (incomplete development of the spinal cord), kyphosis and scoliosis (abnormal spinal curve conditions), myopathy (skeletal muscle disorder), etc.

Disabled-access adaptations like swivel seats and drop floor with a ramp (rear or side entry) help physically-challenged people to get in and out of the vehicle.

On the other hand, assisted driving adaptations include hand controls with/without electronic functions, steering wheel spinner, mini-steering wheel, foot steering, steering joystick control and other custom-made adaptations.

RTA guidelines

The present RTA (Roads and Transport Authority) system refers to a physically challenged person in context of complete permanent and complete temporary immobility. Currently, the system covers infantile paralysis, people with physical impediment, elderly (aged 65 for male and 70 for female) and people with permanent sickness who visit hospitals and clinics frequently.

"The RTA deals mostly with lower body disabilities," says Ali Jassim.

Observably, the procedure to procure a driver's licence is different. Those who wish to apply are asked to visit a government hospital and get a report stating they will be able to drive.

The licencing manager at the branch verifies the identity of the person and approves the application that must be accompanied by the necessary documentation. The validity of the licence depends on various factors including type of disability. It can range from a month to three years, says Jassim. "And can be renewed based on doctor's recommendation."

Though there are several procedures already in place for physically challenged people, the RTA is studying a new system for licensing vehicles for the physically challenged and training.

The RTA strives to cater to this stratum of society. "We provide the necessary support like wheelchairs, access to customer centres and facilities in taxis and buses. In addition, RTA gives them priority," he says.

A driver needs to apply for a Special Needs Parking Card or Handicapped Parking Permit that "allows him to park in reserved/ special areas that are closer to building entrances, ramps, etc. More than two parking spaces are reserved in each parking lot".

He says the permit is free, however guidelines must be followed. The permit must be owned by a first-degree relative or the applicant. And the card can be utilised only when the physically challenged person is in the car.

Individuals who use this car when unaccompanied by the physically challenged relative will be fined. And the current fine for the violation of space allocated for people with special needs "amounts to Dh1,000 and 12 black points."