The Long Story of Getting Brent his Driver’s License

This is the story of getting Brent a driver’s license over the past two-and-a-half-years. Brent is mildly handicapped – he has Cerebral Palsey and walks with hand crutches/canes – so getting him a driver’s license was a bit more complex than for a typical person.

Of course we started out with little information about the process and rules with which we were dealing and so we kind of figured it out as we went along. We started out working with Michigan Rehabilitation Services. MRS is supposed to be an advocate for handicapped individuals and we thought that they could help us navigate through the process. Also MRS would possibly help with the financial aspects of converting a car, and paying for special driver’s education services.

It always took a very long time to get a meeting scheduled with MRS and there was a lot of staff turnover so far too often we end up starting over telling the whole story from scratch. MRS seems obsessed with coming up with “life plans” for their clients instead of just helping where help is needed. So when we started talking about Brent’s license they wanted us to take an assessment for his driving capabilities in order to form a plan.

So we took Brent to an assessment of his driving abilities by a local company. They ran Brent through a battery of tests for vision, reaction time, and night vision. He did surprisingly well – his reaction time for both his legs was acceptable and his corrected vision was OK – he had a little color blindness but it was within acceptable limits for driving. The only thing that he “failed” was a test of visual multi-tasking. It was a computer “game” with pastel colored blocks moving across the screen from right to left and left to right. Brent was supposed to hit the space bar whenever a robin’s egg blue square crossed the center. It was kind of like Guitar Hero” which Brent plays in expert mode. Brent missed a few squares – here and there – I could not tell if it was because the colors of the squares were all too close (all pastels) or if he just did not understand the game.

The net result of the test was that Brent was cleared to drive in all areas except visual multitasking. The assessor felt that Brent needed “visual multitasking therapy” for a while and then he would be cleared. Interestingly, during conversation it turned out that “visual multitasking” was her particular area of expertise and that there was only a single facility where this kind of therapy available within a 50-mile radius – and surprisingly – it was her.

Perhaps we should have felt happy that we were so “lucky” to have a therapist for “exactly what Brent needed” so conveniently located. As you might expect this was not my reaction. We thanked her and told her we would get back with her. At home, as a family we decided not to play her game and that meant that Michigan Rehabilitation Services would not likely help us with custom driver’s education arrangements or financing. We decided to sit tight for a few months and think things through. It seemed like we had hit a “dead end”.

After a few months, it occurred to me to wonder “How much was this custom driver’s education?” So we checked with a family friend that ran local company and realized that the first phase would be a few hundred dollars and it included an in-car evaluation! I pretty much kicked myself for wasting all that time even talking to Michigan Rehabilitation Services – since I could have simply paid for it directly and saved months of wasted time.

So Summer 2008, we enrolled Brent (17 years old by now) in a local driver’s education course – he would take the classroom work with all of the other students and do the observational riding with all of the other students – and then do his driving with the special handicapped driver’s education school – it was all nicely coordinated and not that expensive. Brent did great in the class and in the driving and quickly got his Level 1 certificate.

Bob was Brent’s special driving instructor and Bob’s evaluation suggested that all Brent needed to drive was a left-foot accelerator. This was a gloriously simple device and it could be installed for $500 in an car – and we had a great company (Clock Conversions) very close to our home that did superb work. So I went in and got the left-foot accelerator installed into my Buick LeSabre so Brent could drive my car in his training. The left-foot accelerator was easily removable so I could drive the car as well.

With the Level-1 certificate in hand and a left-foot accelerator installed we triumphantly marched off to the Secretary of State to get Brent’s Learner’s Permit in July 2008. I was really looking forward to getting Brent out on the road legally and teaching him how to drive. Of course it would not be so simple.

We went to the Secretary of State Office to get his Learner’s permit and after making several trips to get the necessary identity materials – they told us they needed written documentation to indicate whether or not he was safe to drive. Our hearts sunk – it seemed we were back to where we were nearly a year ago – needing an evaluation.

The staff at the Secretary of State gave me all of the paperwork and it turned out to be much better than I expected. The rules and materials were very clear. They effectively delegate the “safe to drive” decision to Brent’s doctors. There was paperwork that we need to take to Brent’s regular doctor and eye doctor – and all they had to do was answer a bunch of questions and indicate whether they felt it was safe for Brent to drive. Luckily Brent’s doctors are great and have known him for a long time and know he is very capable physically and they quickly filled out the paperwork and gave him him a green light for driving.

With paperwork in-hand – we triumphantly return to the Secretary of State – ready for our Learner’s Permit. But it turns out that the paperwork needs to be evaluated by the Secretary of State evaluation office. These were people that we could not meet or talk to – we needed to simply send the paper work to them and wait. The only feedback we could get was a phone number where I might check the status of the paperwork. So we sent in the paperwork in and waited. After a two weeks I checked on the status – at least they did tell me they received his materials – so we kept waiting. After a few more weeks – we got a letter in the mail from the evaluators clearing Brent.

So we run back to the Secretary of State and after the standard trip back home to get more identity materials – we ended up with Brent’s Learner’s permit on September 8, 2008.

So we started driving to get to the 20 hours required to take the second segment education so he could get his license before he was 18. We drove 1-2 hours per week during the Fall. We did not drive much during the Winter of 2009. When March came and things warmed up we went back to driving several hours per week. I really wanted Brent to be able to drive to high school once in his senior year – so I put on the pressure and we drove several hours per week except when I was traveling.

Once Brent turned 18 in April, the game changed a bit – all that he needed was to pass a driver’s test since he was an adult. So we kept driving and started adding more professional special driving education lessons as well. I was waiting for his driver’s instructor to tell me when he felt Brent was ready for the test – I wanted to be patient and not rush things. May and June came and went, Brent graduated from High School so the new goal was to get Brent ready to drive to College at Lansing Community College in the Fall.

Brent could take the handicap bus from CATA to School – but I *really* wanted Brent to drive to college from the very first day. And since LCC started August 20, we had a really hard deadline for our training. In June and July we were driving 2-3 hours per week plus a weekly driver’s instructor session. I was getting really pleased with Brent’s driving – I could tell him where to go – as long as it was a familiar route and he could drive without any guidance. I figured he was ready to give the road test a try – but I kept waiting for our instructor to tell me that it was “time”.

During June and July, Brent got a little tired of the constant driving where he would be picked apart and told how to improve – I had to increase the bribes. I bought AC/DC tickets but did not tell Brent about them – I just told him that a “wonderful music-related gift” would be his as soon as he passed the test in order to keep his motivation up. Also Brent ended up in a metal/punk band (A Fatal Masquerade) in July and really all he wanted to do was hang out with the band – instead of driving – but I pushed him on and on.

Toward the end of July it seemed like we were running out of time to finish up the test, get Brent a car, and polish his driving up enough to have him drive to class the first day. So I told our driver’s ed instructor (a family friend) that we either needed to get to the test now or miss another window of opportunity. It turned out that he was fine with Brent taking the test – I just had to ask.

A few months earlier, his instructor had run Brent though the parallel parking part of the test and had said that Brent “aced” it. But I figured that we should spend another hour of driver’s ed instruction on the parallel parking part of the test. It turned out that Brent could do parallel parking with lots of coaching – but he did very badly on his own. By this point, I already had a test scheduled a week later and no more scheduled driver’s ed instruction so it was up to Brent and me to learn Parallel parking in a week on our own.

I bought cones and pieces of plastic pipe so I could do my own setup in any parking lot. We cased the place that did the test and I did an identical setup and practiced three hours that week. Our final practice was the day of his driver’s test in the morning of July 25, 2009 – we worked through every angle, every thought and by the end of that practice, he could nail it. I actually tried it myself and it is harder than it looks.

So we went to our first driver’s test on July 25, 2009. It started with a parallel parking test – which he absolutely aced – zero points off – I was so proud and so happy – and I knew that he would do fine on the road part of the test which we had practiced for months. So I waited while they went off for the test.

When they came back – he pulled in and parked very nicely – I walked up to the car – but the examiner was not getting out. Since Brent is 18 – I am not allowed to be part of the conversations. After 2 minutes of talking – I was hopeful – after 10 minutes of talking – I was not hopeful. The examiner finally got out of the car and would not say anything to me. I got in the car and Brent was pretty shaken.

Brent drove for a half of a block and then pulled over and asked me to drive. Brent said that the examiner had been hypercritical from the moment the test started and pointed out every little mistake. He said she dug away at his confidence and that he was really pissed at himself for doing so badly (after all he had aced the parking part of the test). His confidence gradually was eroded and toward the end – he ended up rolling through a yellow light that turned red – an automatic fail and test-ending event. He said he never wanted to drive.

I felt so bad for him that I told him about the main floor AC/DC tickets August 18 – and jokingly told him I might have to take someone else if he did not pass his test by August 18.

We did learn something from that test – Brent was not scanning intersections properly. I had always felt that Brent scanned intersections for too long – it seemed to me he was looking side to side when he should have been looking forwards and concentrating on the intersection as he passed through the intersection. It seemed wrong to me but he had told me that it was how his instructor had taught him.
But it was why he missed the yellow light changing to red – and why he failed to test.

We already had another driver’s ed session scheduled that week and we related this to his instructor – and Brent had simply misunderstood. So he got an hour of instruction where the entire focus was how to scan intersections. When he came back from that hour – he fully understood scanning and the next time we drove together – I was very pleased with his scanning technique.

So we scheduled another test for August 1, 2009. We used a different testing service – one my brother Greg used for all his boys and my brother Scott used for his son. This guy had a great demeanor and was not mean at all. I forgot what time it we were scheduled so I arrived an hour early he was giving another girl a test so we watched. She did terribly on the parallel parking part of the test – but she passed barely and got to go out on the driver’s portion of the test. The examiner’s demeanor did seem really nice and gentle and kind – very teacher like.

When the girl went out on the road test – I asked Brent if he wanted to practice the parallel parking bit of the test (which we had not practiced for a week since his last test). The cones were perfectly setup and we could have practiced for 30 minutes on the very cones he would be tested on. Brent said that he did not need practice – after all – just a week earlier – he had aced the parallel parking test. Not wanting to increase his stress level I agreed.

When the examiner came back from the road test with the girl – we started our test. To put it simply – Brent crushed and knocked over lots of cones – it was as if he had never done the test before in his life. He failed miserably and was devastated because he was so sure parallel parking was easy for him. When you fail the parallel parking – you do not get to even go on a road test. The examiner kindly asked Brent if it was OK to discuss the results with me (he is 18) and Brent said “yes”. I told him that Brent aced the parking test before and we just did not practice it because we were too confident.

The examiner was very nice and he gave me ideas on how to to better next time and then even though Brent did not go on the road portion I asked the examiner a few questions about road test strategy – which he gave me really good answers. I thanked him and we scheduled another test for two weeks later. This time – we would practice the cones and everything else – Brent would not be allowed to be “overconfident”.

At this point it seemed that Brent would eventually pass and so I needed to get him a car. We purchased a black Pontiac Sunfire that had a bunch of mechanical issues but was pretty cheap. My brothers Scott and Christopher took the car and replaced over $800 worth of parts on the car to fix the big problems over the weekend of August 8-9.

I had also scheduled another driver’s test at a service in Holt Monday August 10 at 9:30 in the morning. This would be the last driver’s test Brent would take in my Buick LeSabre – I scheduled the left-foot accelerator to be moved from my LeSabre to Brent’s Sunfire at Clock Conversion Monday August 10, at 1PM. If Brent failed the August 10 test in Holt, we would spend the week of August 10-16 re-learning how to drive in the smaller Sunfire and he would take the test in the Sunfire August 17 in Jackson (3 days before LCC started). We were cutting it close but – we could still make it!

The examiner at Holt leaves the cones up all the time (THANK YOU!) and so we were able to practice parallel parking on the actual cones several times before the test on August 10. Both Brent and I were pretty relaxed about the August 10 test because we knew that if he failed this test – the next test would be in a much smaller car and be with the very nice examiner from Jackson and he would probably pass the August 17 test if he failed the August 10 test.

The examiner in Holt turns out to be a retired teacher and really nice guy with a relaxed and easygoing manner. Brent did pretty well on the parallel parking test and went on the road test. When he came back – the examiner told me Brent had passed the road test! I about fell down with surprise. I thanked the examiner and off we went to get Brent’s license at the Secretary of State.

Of course when we got to the counter – we did not have the right identification – garrgh! We had his state id card! It was their own damn card – and it was not identification – we needed the state ID card and two other pieces of identification! So back home we go to get the ID – thankfully we are five minutes from the Secretary of State’s office.

When we came back with all the paper work and the certificate of driver’s test passage – there was a moment of silence where I am sure the lady behind the counter was checking to see if there was some remaining technicality that we could get nailed on – but she could not find any remaining technicality – so off Brent goes to get his picture taken and a real-live driver’s license at 11AM on August 10, 2009.

There was not time to celebrate – we needed to get Brent’s car to Clock Conversion for the left foot accelerator. Scott had finished the repairs that morning – so he drove up and we dropped off the car at Clock Conversion right at 1PM. We left Brent home so he could just sleep and decompress from the two+ years of pressure he had been under to get this license.

So I bought Scott lunch to thank him and then we went to ABC Warehouse to buy Brent a cheap GPS. I wanted a GPS so Brent could always find his way home if he got lost. Often navigating is harder than driving when kids first get their license – so I wanted to remove that from his set of things to worry about.

By mid-afternoon Clock Conversion was done with the left foot accelerator so we took the car home to Brent with GPS and started teaching him how to drive his new car! We focused on short trips to friend’s houses and setting GPS waypoints for each place he would go (video store, friend’s house, etc). I would take him somewhere twice and then have him go by himself once and then he was cleared to go to that place by himself.

The GPS turned out to be a god-send. It worked far better than I hoped – Brent used it for all of his trips – even when he knew where he was going – the GPS gave a reassuring feedback when he was to go straight and when he needed to turn. Interestingly the turn-by-turn verbal instructions are almost *exactly* the instructions I would give Brent while we were driving together – except the GPS has clearer and more consistent instructions than I did. With the GPS, Brent was able to focus on lane position, stopping, and starting, and maintaining speed instead of navigation! He could focus on driving the car safely and spend less worrying about whether or not he was lost.

If I were to do this over – I would have put the GPS in the car almost from the beginning when Brent had his learner’s permit and let the GPS give the verbal navigation instructions instead of me! He would have learned much faster and he would have gotten far less tired of hearing my voice :).

In about a week, Brent was driving all the time and all over the place on the approved routes to his friend’s houses, the video store, the ice cream place, the pizza place, and Basement 414 ( He was nearly always accompanied by one of his band-mates and other friends – so they helped him and gave him even more confidence. Since it is Summer and they did not have cars – Brent quickly became the Taxi driver for his crew – so he got lots of experience in the 10 days leading up to his first day of College at LCC on August 20.

August 18 – we went to AC/DC and celebrated and had a great time – after all he had passed the test. It was the best concert ever – which I will describe that in another blog post.

Two days later, I rode with Brent on August 20 to LCC on the first day of school. Traffic is really bad because folks are both registering and taking classes the first few days. LCC puts up traffic cones (really dumb) to make things even more complex. But we made it through it and he drove to and from school and made it to class and found the places for lunch.

We rode with him two more times and then set him free to drive to LCC on his own. He has three friends who have similar schedules so he becomes taxi on Mondays and Wednesdays. It is nice to have someone with him to give him confidence and help if something were to happen.

It has been great fun to watch him blossom – he has gone places with the GPS – he has gotten lost and had the GPS save him.

He is 100% independent for the first time in his life and he is enjoying it greatly – and I am very proud of him.

This whole process was nearly three years in the making and while at times it was very frustrating – it is pretty complex to get someone to the point where they are ready to drive – and there are lots of people to thank along the way. Feel free to contact me if you need any names or recommendations – I have purposely left identifying information out of this article – but you can contact me for details.

— Chuck