By Stephanie Stephens Van, M.A., CLVT

The Driver Problem: A Daily Frustration

head shot of Stephanie Van

My husband and I are legally blind and are raising two boys. We have no car. We have chosen to live in an urban area for the benefit of transportation, but we have also faced the challenges of living in suburbs and small towns.

We are continually reminded of our transportation challenges by family and friends who will ask, “Why don’t you move back home?” or “Why don’t you come visit more often?” The answer is simple. We need a driver.

Assistive technology has put me on a more-or-less equal playing field with my sighted counterparts. Despite all of these impressive technological advances, however, what continues to frustrate me the most in my daily life is the stress and anxiety of being at the mercy of public transportation systems.

Getting a driver sounds simple, doesn’t it? It sounded simple to me when I was in my twenties. In my naiveté, I thought this would be easy. But over the past thirty years, I have learned it is not that simple.

Transportation options have declined, due to lack of funding. Fewer persons are available to volunteer as drivers. Medical facilities and shopping areas have sprawled far outside the city limits. Ease of mobility and transportation options have markedly decreased.

My Early Driver Experiences: It Was So Much Easier “Back Then”

When I first began working as an itinerant (or field-based) vision rehabilitation therapist (VRT) in the 1980s, the private, non-profit agency that hired me provided a corps of volunteer drivers. Work problem solved! The need to get around to shopping, medical, and social events was also less problematic back then, when taxis were prevalent, reliable, and accommodating.

My work friends and church friends were available to drive on an “as needed” basis. I made sure not to ask the same person too often so that none of my drivers felt “used or abused.” The notion of “not going back to the same well” too many times is an important point that not only applies to drivers, but to other sources of support as well.

Over the years, transportation funding was steadily reduced, along with bus routes, schedules, and transportation flexibility. The health care system spread out its specialties and testing areas. There was no more “one-stop shopping,” so to speak. In addition, my current employer required that I hire my own drivers for my field-based work.

Learning to Find a Driver: Lessons I Have Learned and Want to Share

What all of this meant was that I had to learn a variety of effective ways to hire my own drivers for both my work and my personal lives, in order to ensure a reliable and consistent means of transportation. Here are some lessons about hiring a driver that I have learned along the way:

  • Consider this relationship to be a business relationship rather than a volunteer relationship. Create a job description that clearly defines the required hours, job tasks, and expectations. It is my belief that such a description makes it clear that you are skilled, competent, and in control; in addition, it addresses the potential “pity attitude” toward blindness head-on.
  • Advertise in all kinds of places. I have used community bulletin boards, public libraries, volunteer organizations, the Department of Aging, churches, advertising circulars, and online; in fact, I found my most reliable driver through Craigslist. Be willing to pay advertising fees if you take your venture seriously.
  • Use only one contact method in the ad. Use either a phone number or an email address. Never provide both. Keeping yourself safe is important.
  • The more I reach out, the more helpful it will be when I need additional drivers in the future. If I receive more than one reply, I keep a file of available names so I don’t have to use the same driver all the time. I have learned that this keeps everyone happier over the long run, especially when emergencies arise, such as taking my child’s trombone to school when he left it behind, or delivering a form to a doctor’s office.
  • Prepare a driver application form for each candidate. This can be especially helpful if you interview several applicants and it can help with record-keeping, including contact information if you need it later. An application is also helpful if the driver wants to report your payment as added income, or if you deduct job and travel expenses on your own income taxes.
  • The application should, at minimum, contain the following information: name, address, telephone number, email, references, driving experience, safety record, insurance coverage, and availability.
  • Keep the application in your laptop or notetaker and complete it electronically when you meet the applicant. After the interview is completed, print out the application for the individual to sign and scan the completed application into your computer.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask about the applicant’s driving record and safety. Asking how many accidents the person has had during the past year, the last five years, and the last 10 years gives you a good idea about whether you want to entrust your safety to this person. Believe me, I have made the mistake of driving with unsafe persons for the sake of “needing to get there,” and no destination is more important than your safety!
  • Conduct in-person interviews with potential candidates. I recommend that you ask a sighted friend or relative to attend the interview with you. It’s also best to meet the candidate in a neutral public location to ensure your safety and protect your personal space. I have met with candidates in a variety of public areas, such as restaurants, parks, and in an interview room with my secretary.
  • Be sure to pick a location from which you and your sighted friend can retreat quickly and easily, if the need arises. Having someone with you who can see the subtleties you may not hear in an applicant’s voice is, I believe, a smart and prudent thing to do. A sighted companion can tell you how the person is groomed, head to toe, for example. Remember that a picture is worth “a thousand words.”
  • Be prepared to offer a flat or hourly fee. Going into the interview, if you know what you are able to pay, you and your potential driver will not have false or unrealistic expectations regarding finances.
  • Be “up front” from the outset. State how much you can pay, the services you require, and when you will need those services. If you are on a limited income, you can offer to barter by baking a cake, doing sewing repairs, or performing online research, for example.
  • It is okay to fire a driver. This is easier when you have a well-defined business arrangement in place. Remember that safety always comes first. There have been situations in which I felt the driver was not driving safely, even though I could not see. Although I have never driven, I know how a car feels when it is traveling, stopping, and accelerating. When a car lurches forward repeatedly, accelerates to make a sudden left turn more than once a day, or screeches to a halt at traffic lights or intersections, I can clearly sense that something is not right. If this happens, trust your intuition that this driver is not as safe as he or she has stated.
  • Not every driving situation is always a business situation. Despite my emphasis on establishing a business relationship, your friends will most likely be happy to drive. My rule of thumb is to know which friend likes to shop in particular stores or neighborhoods and plan accordingly. For instance, one of my friends belongs to a big-box membership store. Another likes to shop at the mall. When I know I will be needing items at either of those locations, I will ask when their next trip to that store will be. In return, I’ll buy lunch or snacks or an item for them while I shop.
  • Be flexible with your personal (as opposed to work-related) needs. It is best to get used to being patient and flexible. I have a simple rule I tell all my drivers: “If I have the right to ask, you also have the right to say no.” I never want to take advantage of our working relationship. Being a considerate passenger is extremely important.
  • Good planning is key. As with all things in blindness living, organization and planning is essential. If you coordinate your trips within similar geographic areas and locations, you can help make the most of your—and your driver’s—time. I spend much time using Google maps and web searches to locate where businesses and doctors’ offices are located in relation to each other. A GPS device can also be helpful for planning ahead with virtual mapping. I have also learned that sometimes it is not possible to get that widget at ABC market today. It can wait until the end of the week. Life will go on without it.

Peer Advisor Empish J. Thomas: Uber Has Revolutionized My Life!

Empish J. Thomas
Emish J. Thomas

Why I Use Uber

During the past year, Uber has revolutionized my life. It has been an excellent alternative to public transportation, cabs, hiring personal drivers, and asking for rides from friends. I have used Uber for all kinds of commuting around the Atlanta Metro area, including doctor appointments, work-related meetings, grocery shopping, and outings with friends and movie nights.

You name it and Uber has pretty much taken me there. But with all of this traveling around, Uber can be quite addictive. The ability to call up a driver in about 5-10 minutes with the swipe of a finger on your smartphone just about any time you want? That is just hard to beat!

But There Is Also a Cost

Uber can be expensive, depending upon where you are going. My rides have ranged from as little as $5 to as high as $30 or more, causing me to slow down and look closely at the top most important times to use Uber. So if you are considering using Uber and are not sure of when to use the service take a look at my suggestions.

Read more to learn about Empish’s “top five” Uber list at The Top Five Ways I Use Uber at the Visually Impaired: Now What? blog.

Finally, Know That Every Situation Is Unique

These are my personal experiences and life lessons. Each person is unique. Each situation is unique. Each area of the country is unique. You will need to find your own solutions to meet your specific needs.

Transportation remains a critical priority for almost all visually impaired or blind persons. Despite the trend toward self-contained communities, I know very few blind or visually impaired persons who can afford to move to these communities, due to high unemployment rates among persons who are blind.

In the meantime, good luck finding your way—and happy travels!