Safety first, even for driver without arms

Industry news
Johannesburg – For most people, getting into a car and strapping on a seatbelt doesn't require much effort.

However, when you're a driver who doesn't have arms, like Dolf Jonker, the process is quite different.

To ensure his safety, the 57-year-old uses a truncated clothes hanger as a hook to pull the seatbelt. He then pulls it with his teeth towards his right foot, which then finishes off the job by clamping the belt into its holder.

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QUITE A FEAT: Dolf Jonker opening the driver's side of his vehicle with his right foot. Pictures: Bhekikhaya Mabaso.LOOKING AHEAD: Dolf Jonker using his right foot to put on his driving glasses.PEDAL POWER: Dolf Jonker uses a special shoe which is attached to his customised steering wheel to operate his vehicle.FOOT-AND-MOUTH MANOEUVRE: Dolf Jonker uses a coat hanger in his mouth to grip his seatbelt, transferring it to his right foot and clamping it in the seatbelt holder.CUSTOM-MADE: Dolf Jonker’s special orange shoe is attached to his customised steering wheel, which enables him to operate his vehicle.

From there, he uses his feet to start the car using a special system – which has everything from the steering wheel, accelerator, hooter, brake and indicators – located at the foot pedals.

Many people, especially truck drivers who can see from a higher vantage point that Jonker drives without arms, are bemused and sometimes stare at him. “They see this thing moving but there's no steering wheel... that’s a bit confusing. If I see people looking, I share with them, and show them how it’s done. You need to educate people.”

Jonker, a group investment manager for the Central Energy Fund, was born without arms, but always knew that his disability wasn't going to stop him from driving.

While growing up, he was motivated by a foot-and-mouth painter, Phillip Swanepoel – who had the same disability – and drove himself around in a modified car.

Jonker bought his first car at the age of 22 and taught himself to drive as there was no driving school to cater for his disability.

It took him only three months before going for his test. However, the licensing station officer was a bundle of nerves that day as he had never tested someone driving without arms before.

“He was petrified. The space he made me park in was big enough for a truck,” Jonker recalls.

Despite its being his first attempt, Jonker passed his test and has been a constant source of bemusement on the roads ever since.

His biggest challenge so far has been taxis, but Jonker says he knows how to deal with them. “I just drive just like them, I have no fear. I won’t give them a chance because they intimidate you to just push in,” he says, laughing.

Jonker’s current car, a Toyota Fortuner, is the fifth car he has owned and modified. He buys standard cars and then rebuilds them to accommodate his disability.

Sometimes the modification is a challenge. “The last one was very difficult because of the optic fibres in the car. We met the challenges because even the manufacturers of the car don’t have the knowledge."

The modification on his current car cost R50 000, and he had to go all the way to Somerset West in the Western Cape.

"It has to be mechanical"

Unlike some disabled people who use more computerised systems like joysticks for controls, Jonker isn't a fan of that kind of technology.

“I need to be mechanical. If I turn that steering wheel, it needs to turn. There should be no electrical failure or stuff like that. I don’t want technology to fail on me.”

However, if there’s a problem with his car, he takes it to any garage. The only thing is that he has to drive the car there himself as other people would not know how.

“My accelerator is on the left-hand side and the brakes on the right. Gears are normal and the steering wheel is by the right foot.

"I think that if you want to be independent, you will have to learn how to drive. I was without a car towards the end of last year because my previous one was giving me problems. My wife had to take me everywhere I needed to be – she was very irritated with me,” he jokes, adding he has been happily married for 18 years.

“It is difficult for a disabled person to always ask someone to take them somewhere. Public transport in South Africa is a problem.”

Helping others to drive

Jonker’s views about public transport are supported by Caroline Rule, an occupational therapist who assesses physically disabled people to see if they have the necessary functionality to be able to drive. She then assists them to find a driving school which has specially adapted cars.

The driving school she works closely with, Driving Ambitions, is a project run by the QuadPara Association and focuses mainly on people in wheelchairs.

They hold fundraising events to subsidise people and provide free lessons for unemployed disabled people.

“For anybody who’s in a wheelchair and applies to Driving Ambitions, they do what they call a means test. People will have to declare how much they earn,” Rule said, adding that people earning less than R10 000 get up to an 80% discount at the driving school.

“But if you are unemployed or on a disability grant, then you will be sponsored for up to 10 lessons for free, which can also include an assessment with me,” she said.

She admitted it was expensive for an ordinary person to modify cars, which was why they were in need of funds to assist more disabled people in desperate need of a licence to enhance their chances of getting a job.

The Star

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