Health

Josh Maupin was excited for driver’s ed class.

The 27-year-old was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, a developmental disability that means he has to take more time to learn and process concepts. He gets distracted easily.

“I’m a slow learner; it takes me time to get used to something,” Maupin said.

Maupin lives in Jackson County, southeast of Lexington. Having access to a car and a drivers’ license in rural Kentucky is something a lot of people take for granted. But for people with developmental disabilities, learning to drive is difficult.

When he arrived at a Lexington classroom last Wednesday, Maupin was nervous.

He and about 20 other people with intellectual and developmental disabilities including autism and Down syndrome were there to learn the basics of driving through the Arc of Kentucky, a disability rights advocacy group.

People with disabilities have the right to take a driver’s permit or license test, and the group seeks to help teach them in a way suited to their learning needs.

For Maupin, getting a driver’s license could be a game-changer.

A ‘Big Step’

Driver’s ed classes are usually geared toward people without disabilities, and most don’t teach all the little decisions that are part of driving down the street — like what to do if someone is tailgating. Those split-second decisions can be harder for someone living with an intellectual disability.

So, while Maupin knows the basics, he’s never had a driving instructor who can teach him in a way that is suited to his needs.

Sue Miller, a driver rehabilitation specialist, taught last week’s class.

“Some of them get their permit and we get on the road and it’s such a complex dynamic — there’s no slow-motion button in driving. And sometimes they can’t pull it all together to be what’d we’d call ‘low-risk,’” Miller said.

Driving a car is crucial in Kentucky, with few good public transportation options or walkable communities, Miller said. For people with disabilities, the lack of a license can be a hurdle to employment and overall mental health.

There’s not much research on the role transportation plays in people with disabilities’ mental health, or that of their caregivers. But psychologist Myra Beth Bundy said the issue often comes up during her work with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Families want to know if their family member can drive,” Bundy said. “It can be hard to have the burden of care-giving, and it can be scary to have the person be more independent, and driving a vehicle is a very big step.”

Maupin lives in rural Jackson County, and his disability — and the fact that he doesn’t have a driver’s license — have meant he can’t get a job or take himself to the grocery store or doctor’s appointments. It’s become a stressor for him.

Courtesy Josh and Brooke Maupin

Brooke Maupin and her brother, Josh.

“He does get a little upset, because I do things he can’t do, and it’s especially upsetting because I’m younger,” said Brooke Maupin, Josh’s 23-year-old sister. “I’ve known since I was a little kid that my job in life was to take care of Josh. I know that eventually he’s going to move in with me.”

Brooke Maupin knows a license would help her brother get a job — something he really wants. He doesn’t work because his mom would have to drive him every day.

“My entire plan has been to give him as much independence as I can whenever that time does come, but still keep him within arms’ reach,” Brooke Maupin said. “I want him to be able to if he wants to go to the store, he can go to the store.”

Patty Huang is a pediatrician who works with disabled children and teens at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She said research suggests that employment and social activities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities may improve long-term physical and mental health.

“I think that there is still a lot to learn about the driving and learning-to-drive experience of individuals with developmental disabilities — who is safe to drive, and how can we best educate and train them?” Huang said. “This type of research is crucial to better inform parents and clinicians as they have discussions about their adolescents who are approaching driving age.”

For Josh Maupin, last week’s class was an early step. He’ll take a driving test with Arc in the spring. The driving instructor will assess then whether he’s ready to try to get a driver’s permit.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.