Personal Story

Impact Feature Issue on Meeting Transportation Needs of Youth and Adults with Developmental Disabilities

Never Give Up: My License to Independence


Connie Lewis is Office Assistant at the University of Montana Rural Institute, Missoula.

Nancy Maxson is Logistics Coordinator at the institute and People First Advisor.

I wanted to learn to drive and I brought this up in a meeting of Missoula [Montana] People First. People First is a self-advocacy organization for people with developmental disabilities. When I mentioned that I wanted to drive at the meeting, other People First members said they wanted to learn to drive also. But there wasn’t anybody to help us study for the written test.

Finding Resources for Drivers Education

The Montana Developmental Disabilities Planning and Advisory Council (DDPAC) had some grant money to help people with disabilities. DDPAC gives grant money to People First of Montana to pay for advisors for the 14 People First chapters across the state. The members of Missoula People First voted to write a grant to DDPAC to get some money so we could learn how to drive. We needed the grant money to pay a drivers education teacher. Two other members and I helped our People First advisor, Nancy Maxson, write the grant. We explained how having drivers licenses would change our lives. DDPAC liked our proposal and gave us more than $16,000 for our drivers education project.

The first thing that we needed was someone to teach the drivers education course. We found Ken, a retired teacher who taught drivers education privately. He met with some of us and we told him that we wanted to learn how to drive. He agreed to teach the drivers education course. I was one of the first people to sign up. The first day of class we told a little about ourselves. He gave us folders, highlighters, pens, pads, and drivers education books. We were also given the Montana State Drivers Manual. We went through the book first and there were movies we had to watch on safety. We answered the questions the teacher had when he called on us. We went through the drivers ed manual answering those questions and highlighted the things that were the most important. The classes lasted 10 weeks. I studied at home also.

Overcoming Obstacles

I didn’t have any problem studying. About two weeks after the class ended I thought that I would go to the drivers bureau and take the written test. I was a little nervous. I paid my $32 and passed my written test. I had to show two forms of identification. I had missed two questions on the test and thought that I missed more. I was a little upset until they said that I passed. The license bureau wouldn’t take my picture for my license and would not give me my learners permit until I had my doctor’s permission, because of my disabilities.

Some of the other People First members were afraid to ask their doctor’s permission. I wasn’t afraid and I wasn’t going to give up. My doctor said that it was ok but I didn’t know that the doctor had to sign papers for the drivers bureau. I thought at the time that the papers that the doctor had to sign were supposed to come from the doctor’s office. I was a little down at the time because I thought I was getting nowhere. I mentioned to our People First advisor one day what the problem was and she helped me get the doctor’s papers that I needed faxed to me. My advisor took me down to the drivers bureau and I handed the doctor’s papers to them. Then they took my picture and gave me my learners permit.

I was ready to start driving, but our teacher had two other jobs, so he didn’t have any time to teach me. I asked someone that I worked with, Marie, if she could teach me how to drive. We asked DDPAC if we could change our grant budget so we could pay Marie the money from the grant that we weren’t paying the teacher. Now we needed a car with assistive devices, because of my physical disabilities. Marie called Community Medical Center to see if we could rent their car with assistive devices. They agreed to rent us their car. Then we needed to buy temporary insurance so we could use the hospital’s car. Grant funds from DDPAC paid for the insurance and the car rental. Arranging all this seemed to take forever, but I really wanted to drive, so I didn’t give up.

When I drove for the first time, Marie said that I was a “natural born driver.” I drove a few more times in the bad weather in Montana. My learners permit was about to expire so I had to take my driving test. I didn’t pass, and because my learners permit was about to expire, I had to take my written test again, but failed that too. It was just not my day. But I didn’t give up. I studied some more and passed the written test so I could continue my driving lessons with Marie. After practicing more with Marie, I took my driving test again and this time I passed. I was official. It took about six weeks before I got the real drivers license in the mail, but I had a temporary one in the meantime.

Purchasing a Vehicle with a PASS Plan

I had my license and I wanted my own car. I started car shopping. My grandmother told me not to get a small car and after visiting several car dealers, I decided I wanted a car where I could sit high up and see better. I also wanted something reliable, safe, and preferably with four-wheel drive, so I wouldn’t have to worry about snowy roads or my car breaking down unexpectedly. Because of my physical disabilities, I wanted an easy-to-reach gear shift. And I really wanted whatever I bought to be green. My parents took me shopping several times and we finally decided that a new Honda CRV would be the best car for me. It was safe, had good gas mileage, had a dash-mounted gear shift, and would accommodate my disabilities better than any other vehicle. Now I just needed the money to pay for it.

My supervisor at work told me that I could expand my work duties and hours if I had a car and could run errands. I receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) in addition to my wages. With the help of Marsha Katz and Nancy Maxson at the Rural Institute, I was able to write a Social Security Plan for Achieving Self Support (PASS plan) to help me buy a vehicle. Because my supervisor said my supported employment job could be expanded if I could run errands, under the PASS system a vehicle would move me toward greater self-support. In the PASS plan we wrote, I sheltered all of my SSDI check and my countable wages from my job in the PASS plan. This made me eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid. I also contacted Montana Vocational Rehabilitation and they agreed to pay for the assistive devices on the vehicle, because the car would help me reach my employment goal.

Some of the things we had to explain in the PASS plan were:

  • How the vehicle would help me reach my employment goal and be more self-supporting.
  • Why a cheaper or used car or rental car wouldn’t work for me. I had to explain why the Honda CRV was the best accommodation for my physical and other disabilities.
  • How I would use my PASS money to pay for the car, insurance, and license plates.
  • How I could meet my monthly living expenses on an SSI check and my remaining non-countable income.
  • That a bank (the Missoula Federal Credit Union) would give me a loan and that I would use the PASS funds to make the payments.
  • That I would set up a separate bank account for my PASS money.

I took my PASS plan to my local Social Security office. They helped me fill out the application for SSI and then faxed my PASS plan to the Social Security PASS Cadre in Denver, Colorado. The PASS Cadre only took about a month to approve my plan. Once they sent me the approval letter, I was able to go the car dealer and order a new car, straight from the factory. The Missoula Federal Credit Union approved my loan and helped me set up the separate account for my PASS money. When the vehicle arrived, Vocational Rehabilitation arranged to have the assistive devices installed.

My License to Independence

My Honda CRV is my license to independence. I use it at work to run errands like picking up catering or office supplies. I don’t have to wait out in the cold to catch the bus each morning. I can shop at any grocery store I want, not just the one that is within walking distance to my home. I can go to movies or choir practice at church in the evening and not worry about finding a ride when the buses aren’t going. The first day I had my car I drove my parents to dinner, instead of them driving me. When People First wrote the grant to DDPAC to pay for drivers education, we said it would change our lives. It changed mine.

Reprinted with permission from the Web site of the University of Montana Rural Institute, Missoula, Montana.