These differently-abled people are introducing innovations that make driving more accessible

Driving is no more a distant dream for the disabled with the option of hand-control systems and auto clutch. But there’s a need for standardisation of product and procedure, say stakeholders

Two decades ago, Biju Varghese, from Kottayam, lost his legs in a bike accident. After remaining confined to the wheelchair for nearly four years, Biju bought a car. “I was ridiculed for dreaming too big,” recalls the electrician, who then went on to develop a hand-control system so that he could drive.

Several experiments and half a dozen prototypes later, he came up with a simple mechanical device with three hand-operated levers for clutch, brake, and accelerator, fitted to the gear rod. The levers are connected with iron cables to a flat-bed unit attached under the pedals. “It takes just minutes to fit and remove the system. It’s compatible with all cars, cost-effective, safe and efficient,” claims Biju, who got the device approved from Automotive Research Association of India, Pune. He was awarded by the National Innovation Foundation, and the Kerala Government approved his product.

Home-bred innovations

There are similar stories of home-bred innovations across the country. For instance, Rajesh Sharma from Jaipur has modified over 3,000 cars with his hand-driving model. “My device comes in a couple of combinations for people with various lower-limb disabilities. I deliver the service at people’s doorsteps,” he says. “The gear box is left untouched and the levers are attached underneath the steering wheel. The accelerator is much like a bike’s and hence easy to handle.”

The enterprising concept is common in all of these systems: to shift the controls to the hand. There are also slight variations to suit specific needs, but they are considered jugaad. Delhi alone is said to have over 10 such places offering makeshift devices that can be fit into any car, from a Maruti Alto to an Audi Q7.

Auto clutch

Has the advent of auto-transmission cars made auto clutch redundant? “Not really,” says Himanshu Chitnis of Auto-Mate India, a Pune-based firm that has manufactured auto clutch systems for 16 years now. “AT cars haven’t penetrated the small-town and rural markets in India.” Auto-Mate offers three products: a computerised auto clutch, ergonomic pedal shift service depending on specific limb disabilities, and a logically-designed hand-control.

“As auto clutch takes care of one function, our hand-control system has only brake and accelerator, thus reducing the stress on the hand. We try and reduce the probability of fitting a hand-control. For those with right limb problems, we custom-build an accelerator pedal to the left of the brake, apart from fitting an auto clutch. Only for those who are disabled in both the limbs, a hand-control is recommended,” says Himanshu. “We are in the process of developing a similar range of products for buses and trucks.”

Need for standardisation

“Mobility is a basic need and those who are disabled have a right to drive. While it’s encouraging to have quite a few devices that address the issue, there’s a need for a government-approved and standardised mechanism/product that can ensure a safe and snag-free drive,” says Nekram Upadhyay, Head of Assistive Technology Services, Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, Delhi.

“There are a few fabricators who have approved mechanisms. Yet, the reliability is still a question mark, mainly because hand-control is not part of the car design.”

“Standardisation on the basis of design, idea and material would make sure that the best possible and a uniform solution is available for everyone. Now, there are too many methods and the concern is about the materials being used to execute a design,” says Himanshu. There’s also a need for strict guidelines for manufacturers and price regulations, says Nekram. “Recently, the Assistive Department of ISIC had a brainstorming session with engineers from Applied Mechanics Department of IIT Delhi and we have suggested the standardisation of hand-control systems for cars.”

Modifying a car

“With subsidies on prices and taxes for those with disabilities, buying a car is easier now. But to make it a disabled-friendly vehicle, there’s a procedure,” says Himanshu. “It’s relatively easier in states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where there’s a higher awareness among the licence-issuing authorities; these were among the first states to put a Government policy in place.”

The first step is to get a pair of certificates from the civil surgeon in a Government hospital, one confirming the disability, the other attesting that the person is permanently fit to drive, citing that the rest of the limbs are able. Depending on the nature of disability, the car should be modified at an agency-approved workshop, after which the Regional Transport Authority registers the vehicle under the category of ‘invalid carriage’. People with disabilities are given a learner’s licence to practise driving on the modified car, and after a month are eligible for a permanent licence.

“However, many tend to bypass the convoluted channel. They either get the car modified from unauthorised workshops for cheaper prices or end up driving without a licence. Insurance companies may not have a clause for such cars,” says Nekram. “A simpler process will also encourage more disabled people to take to the road.”

How an accident changed his life

Harikumar JS

A horrifying accident in 1994 left Thorappa Musthafa paralysed waist down. The former taxi driver and mechanic from Malappuram, Kerala, still remembers how, after two surgeries, the doctor explained that he may never walk again. “My spinal cord was severely damaged and I was left permanently wheelchair-bound,” he says, recalling the anguish.

The then 28-year-old (now 52) took recourse to his expertise as a mechanic and soon started working on retrofitting his old Maruti 800. On New Year’s Day in 1999, he successfully launched his own modified version of the car that made use of a custom-built, hand-worked gear lever that “essentially brought accelerator, brake, clutch and gear under one umbrella,” a first of its kind in the country. He was supported by a local workshop run by a friend.

Musthafa was invited to Delhi to receive a National Technology award from the Central government for his innovation, in 2001. He drove the distance. “It was some 2,700 km one way. My friends were there to help, but no one else knew how to drive my car,” he laughs. He has since modified over 1,300 cars, specially designed for those who are differently-abled. “The design depends on the particular need and the nature of the person’s disability. However, I have conceptualised eight standard models that generally fit any requirement,” he says. With advancement in technology, he is now focusing on what he calls ‘finger-touch design’, something anyone able to move his/her fingertips can operate with ease. “It’s like using a smartphone,” he says.

Modification works are done in his own garage, and Musthafa, who now drives a retrofit Volvo V40 and a WagonR, credits his mechanic-friend, Vijayan, who helped him and countless others with disabilities get in the driver’s seat.

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