02 Jul Driving with help from the NDIS
If you are a person with a disability in Australia who wants to drive with the help of NDIS funding, this article is a great place to start your journey.
For people with a disability, being able to drive and having a vehicle you can use is often life changing, allowing many to gain – or regain – independence.
Specialised driving controls have come a long way in recent years, with state-of-the-art equipment enabling more people with disabilities to drive.
However, a key piece of the puzzle has been funding. The right equipment ranges in price, but with the NDIS potentially providing assistance, even the more expensive equipment can now be affordable.
Managing the application process to get that funding is something that has to be done carefully.
Without the right preparation you might not be successful, or you may experience significant delays beyond the usual approval waiting times. Even worse, you might waste money on equipment that you can’t use.
Role of Driving Occupational Therapists
With this in mind, we talked with three Driving Occupational Therapists, (Driving OTs), aiming to provide the information you need to get on the road as safely and quickly as possible.
Driving OTs have completed a postgraduate qualification to enable them to assess and assist people with disabilities to drive.
They have specialist knowledge and experience that is vital for any participant to make use of, in addition to the qualification that allows them to write prescriptions for the equipment required.
Crucially, without a report from a Driving OT, you are highly unlikely to get funding approval from the NDIS.
Whilst the NDIS is a national scheme, there are local variations that may affect:
- whether you can get funding in your area,
- state regulation of the equipment you might use and your license to drive,
- your ability to access the people you need to manage the process and learn to drive, and
- the waiting time if everything is successfully approved.
To better understand these local variations we spoke with Driving OTs from three different Australian states.
One of them, NSW Driving OT Nick Neville, (main image), is from the regional town of Port Macquarie, helping us better capture any additional challenges for those not close to a major city, although our Queensland based Driving OT, Tim Williams, and Victorian Driving OT, Janene Strahan, also had experience of helping people from regional areas.
Being Fully Prepared
All three Driving OTs agree that people with disabilities wanting to drive need to prepare carefully to get the best and quickest outcome, as well as avoid some potential pitfalls.
As Nick explains, “Some participants have approached me after buying a car or equipment that isn’t appropriate – equipment I won’t be able to sign off on. So, my first piece of advice is – don’t buy anything before talking to a Driving OT. It can be an expensive mistake.”
Having the right NDIS Plan is also vital for the process to run without avoidable delays.
“You must have ‘driving’ as one of the key goals in your NDIS Plan, but what people sometimes forget is to allocate the correct funding for the different services you’ll also need,” Tim notes.
“It might not be possible to specify a dollar amount for vehicle modifications as you won’t know at this stage what is required.”
“However, you do need to include funding – it can be around $5,000 – for the allied health professionals who will be a key part of the process, from Driving OTs to Driving Instructors.”
“Also include other costs, for example travel to and from appointments, lessons and assessments for you and your carer if necessary.”
Janene emphasises that without the right NDIS Plan, there can be substantial delays: “If the plan isn’t set correctly, you may have to wait several months before you can amend it. Nothing can go ahead before the plan is signed off with the correct details and funding, so this delay is on top of the usual waiting time people experience to receive approval of funding.”
So, even if everything is correct with the participant’s NDIS plan, what are the next steps and how long does this take?
The Assessment Process
Tim, (pictured below), took us through his typical process: “I like to have an initial phone call with a participant to check that they have everything in place and that I’m the right person to help them. That can be around 30 to 45 minutes,” Tim confirmed. “This then moves on to a service booking via the NDIS portal and our first in-person meeting.”
“From that meeting, I create a service agreement which I write, and the participant signs off. This forms the blueprint of what I’ll be helping with and will deliver, including time frame and costs. It’s like a quotation and gives both sides a clear understanding of the steps and outcomes.”
“The second in-person meeting is a clinical examination: I might measure the participant, look at the equipment they use, their strength, vision, hearing and in some cases assess cognitive capacity to ensure they can make the correct decisions when driving or be able to learn how to drive.”
Tim also introduces some of the driving controls and equipment that might be used: “I might show a YouTube video or do a practical demo using equipment installed in my car.”
Nick also mentions that this is when he might need to educate the participant about what’s now possible: “Some people aren’t aware of the new technology available and have fixed ideas about what they want to use, and some of those ideas aren’t the best solution for that person.”
Test Driving the Equipment
Next is the practical trial which requires a degree of preparation and coordination. It could be one week or one month later.
The participant needs to have a driving license, (at least a learner’s), and clearance to drive from their Doctor, a Driving Instructor must be there, and the most likely modifications must be available.
This isn’t always easy to prepare, and here’s where state-based road and license rules also come into play. As Janene notes, “in Victoria, as well as a Driving Instructor, the car needs to have dual controls installed and the participant must have an up-to-date medical report.”
Having the right equipment available can be difficult in cases where a participant’s disability requires a bespoke solution, or they live in a remote area.
“Sometimes I’ve had to conduct the assessment in Sydney using another person’s car because the participant needs specific modifications that aren’t available to trial in Port Macquarie,” recalls Nick.
Tim also remarked about the range of challenges and solutions he has faced: “A practical trial can take 45 minutes or half a day. I’ve had to conduct trials on different days with different cars for the same participant so that I could trial one modification from one, and another in the second.”
“I’ve travelled as far at Mt Isa to conduct a trial, and equally some participants have travelled from regional areas to me in Brisbane. The needs of that person and the availability of the right equipment can dictate where the trial has to happen.”
Ideally, the driving instructor present should also be someone with experience of teaching people with disabilities.
“This isn’t mandatory in NSW, but it is really important,” Nick notes, “and the difficulty in finding an instructor with the right experience available when you need them is one of the reasons I chose to also qualify as a driving instructor.”
Getting a Doctor’s clearance can also create difficulties. A few Doctors only give clearance for a day and that may not be long enough to complete the trial. Some will also require the participant to visit their surgery to receive the clearance in person, others are happy to email or fax it through.
Driving OT’s Report
If the trial goes well, the Driving OT is now able to write up their report for the NDIS and prescribe equipment for the participant.
In deciding on the appropriate equipment, the Driving OT is always looking for the best outcome for the participant, considering factors like safety, driver fatigue and how the equipment might help preserve the use of joints as someone gets older.
That means sometimes prescribing higher level equipment to ensure that a participant can still use it in 10 years time, or anticipating how changes in their condition should be accommodated.
They are not only mindful of NDIS requirements, but also the local state regulations. “In NSW, the Roads and Maritime Service, (RMS), certifies the modifications for a vehicle, usually a cost covered by the equipment’s supplier,” Nick explains. “However, some modifications you see for sale in shops don’t meet the design standards.”
And as Janene notes, for Victoria the NDIS complements the existing state scheme that covers people with disabilities for modifications valued up to $10,000.
The age of the car being modified is also a factor, with cars over 3 years old requiring further assurances of roadworthiness to be approved. Choosing transferable modifications can help overcome these barriers.
Depending on the cost and nature of the equipment required, your Driving OT may also need to get two different quotes for the modifications. This isn’t always possible if the solution is bespoke for a participant, or only available from one supplier.
The Driving OTs’ report and the quotes are submitted to the NDIA for approval. The cost of the modifications dictates the level of oversight the application receives, with the higher cost solutions taking longer, some being assessed by the Vehicle Modification Panel based in Adelaide.
“I might receive an email or call from someone if they need clarification”, Tim notes. “Obviously the higher cost modifications generally are the ones that get the most scrutiny.”
And how long, after the report is submitted, might someone wait?
In Tim’s experience, approval could be a short as 9 days and as long as 9 months, whilst Janene feels the waiting period is “within 1 month to over 6 months” in her part of Victoria. Nick says that a realistic timeline for the whole process is 9-12 months for his part of regional NSW.
In summary, the process for people with disabilities to get on the road requires preparation and isn’t something you should rush into without doing your research.
Finding Your Local Driving OT
Your first step should be to contact your local Driving OT. Depending where you live, this isn’t always as straightforward as you might hope. Whilst there is a national database, there are many Driving OTs not listed, and the state databases vary in quality.
Total Ability has over the years developed a comprehensive list of Driving OTs. Whether you are interested in Total Ability equipment or not, feel free to contact us if you aren’t able to locate a nearby Driving OT. If we can help, we’ll happily do so.