'Aim High in Steering'—Unexpected Life Lessons from Driver's Ed
By Greg Smith, Sr.,The Strength Coach
When I was a 16-year-old driver's education student, my teacher repeated those words over and over. He had to because young drivers tend to focus on very short distances in front of them and continually make steering adjustments to keep the vehicle within the lines. Who knew that this sage advice would apply not only to vehicular safety, but also to living life with a disability?
The result of a fledging motorist's nearsightedness is that the vehicle jerks back and forth. And for the driver, the experience is stressful because of the constant life/death decisions made with each slight turn of the wheel.
Instead, as you know if you drive, you should focus your attention much farther down the road. If you do that, you'll learn to trust that the vehicle will get you there in a straight line.
Expanding Access to the Open Road
At the age of 16, I was devastated to learn that because of muscular dystrophy and my weakened arms, I would not be able to drive a normal vehicle. But all hope was not lost. I learned of a technology called "zero effort steering" which helped people with reduced strength turn the wheel with much less force. It was technology that was developed for astronauts to use on the lunar rover and was applied to the real world to change the lives of people with disabilities on this planet.
In 1987, I got my first set of wheels, a Dodge Ram mini-van and I've been driving with zero effort steering ever since! Four vans later, I'm still free to go wherever I want.
I can still drive skillfully, but because of muscular dystrophy, my body has become a lot weaker over the years. In situations where I have to turn the wheel around and around, such as making a 3-point turn or in tight parking garages, it tires me out.
I have always accepted that there would come a day when I would no longer be able to drive. I have "known" that day was coming and dreaded the loss of freedom that would result.
As fate would have it, I wasn't aiming high enough in steering! The technology has advanced to the point where the simple movement of a joystick can operate a vehicle with precision. I now know that day of losing my freedom will never happen because I'll always be able to move the joystick.
This week, Jim Kennedy from Atlanta's Shepherd Center came to visit me to evaluate me for new driving technology. I learned that driving a vehicle with a joystick is nothing like driving a power wheelchair. Press the joystick forward and hear the engine rev. Pull backwards to apply the brakes. Move your wrist an inch to the right and watch the steering wheel quickly whip around and around to the right.
Sounds simple right? When I get used to it, it will be. But I took the van up and down my neighborhood street about 20 times and still wasn't comfortable taking it out on the main road.
But Jim encouraged me. I pulled up to the intersection. Looked both ways. Moved my joystick to the right and slightly forward… ever so slightly. And suddenly, I found myself in panic mode on Government Street in Ocean Springs, Mississippi! It is a very narrow curving road with lots of traffic and has no shoulder. You have to "thread the needle" to keep the vehicle in the safe spot between having a head on collision and rolling the van in the gutter. And then I heard the voice of my high school driver's ed teacher.
"Aim high in steering." It calmed me down and it worked.
The next day, I was whipping the "green monster" all around Ocean Springs until I reached a sharp turn on Government, misjudged it slightly and ran on the "drunk alarm" ridges on the side of the road. The sound was loud and I was scared, but I remained calm and in control. I didn't overcompensate and in a mater of seconds, I was back in command.
"That scared me."
"Not me," said Jim.
"Because you didn't jerk the wheel," he said. "I've flipped upside down because…"
"Don't talk about that sh*t!" I yelled quite seriously! Jim chuckled.
Aim High in Steering
It is a phrase that it applies to my goals and dreams just like it applies to keeping the car on the road. Look far into the future and see yourself where you want to be. Keep your eye on your destination and trust that your vehicle will keep you on the straight and narrow road to success.
About the author:Greg Smith is a professional speaker, broadcaster and author known as "The Strength Coach." He is the founder of "On A Roll: Talk Radio on Life & Disability," a nationally syndicated radio show that aired on 70 stations from 1992-2006. He is subject and associate producer of the PBS documentary "On A Roll: Family, Disability and the American Dream," which reached 1 million Americans in 2005. He is also the author of "On A Roll: Reflections from America's Wheelchair Dude with the Winning Attitude." For more on Greg Smith, Sr., visit www.thestrengthcoach.com.
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