Low Vision: The Challenge of Not Getting a Driver’s License

Stephanie Klas, mother of two sons with visual impairment and member of the Advisory Committee to the National Center for Children’s Vision and Eye Health at Prevent Blindness, offers this guest article about her family’s experience with navigating transportation and independence as her son transitions into adulthood.

Happy Low Vision Awareness Month! Low vision is defined as a visual impairment that cannot be corrected by glasses, contacts, surgery, or medication and can make it hard to do daily activities. Although less common than in adults, children can also have low vision. My son Brandon was born with low vision due to a diagnosis of optic atrophy and has an acuity of less than 20/200. Vision is an integral part of childhood, essential to social development, physical development, and reading and language skills. To navigate challenges presented by Brandon’s low vision, our family learned that being resourceful and creative, networking with both professionals and parents (creating a support network), developing self-advocacy skills, and keeping a positive attitude makes anything possible.

Stephanie Klas

Stephanie Klas

Driving – A Significant Challenge

The ability to drive is a rite of passage for teenagers. Driving provides independence and freedom, an increase in responsibility, and access to recreational, social, and work opportunities. Some individuals with low vision are able to drive but unfortunately, or fortunately, due to Brandon’s visual acuity we knew he would not be able to, even with bioptic lenses being available. Knowing this is a consequence of his condition, we had time to prepare. We were determined to provide safe and positive driving experiences for him to enjoy and help him come to terms with his future as a non-driver.  For his 4th birthday, a 12V John Deere Gator that he eagerly raced up and down the driveway was his favorite gift, and his love of vehicles began. Brandon grew up with his father working on old vehicles and dirt bikes, and he was keen and able to get his hands dirty. He was also able to occasionally drive these vehicles on private property with our sighted assistance. We felt it was important that he could experience the thrill of driving even though he would not be able to get a license. He enrolled in a Driver’s Education class with his peers and learned the rules of the road. Instead of becoming an independent driver, he became the family’s expert navigator using different map apps on his phone. He has an uncanny sense for cardinal directions, likely from his orientation and mobility (O&M) training.

The year his friends were getting their drivers’ licenses was difficult for Brandon. He could not share their feeling of accomplishment or sense of independence. It was very important for us as parents to check in with him and acknowledge his feelings of loss.  Brandon was one of the few teenagers whose parents still gave him rides. As kids leave home to pursue higher education or a career, transportation solutions become more critical. Decisions about where to work and live are highly influenced by transportation availability, and the lack of a driver’s license influences the types of jobs that can be pursued.

Transportation challenges were expected, and this is what Brandon’s educational team and our family prepared him for. While most people rely on a car for transportation, those with low vision must create a toolbox of options to use, including friends and family, public transportation, biking or walking, ride programs for the elderly or individuals with disabilities, taxis, “rideshare” services like Uber or Lyft, or hiring personal drivers are all possibilities. Barriers are unfortunately common and include a lack of options due to rural locations, affordability, accessibility, limited availability during non-business hours or holidays, and cutbacks in services, routes, and paratransit programs. To overcome these barriers, Brandon relies on his years of O&M training, confidence and self-advocacy skills learned in school, and his resourcefulness to be able to get where he needs to go. A can-do attitude, advance planning, and a lot of patience do not hurt either!