Subscriber OnlyIreland

‘I’m not disabled enough’: Single-arm amputees can’t access disabled drivers’ scheme

The scheme helps motorists with the costs of adapting their cars, but those who have lost only one arm do not qualify

Laura Guerin was 21 years old when a misfiring mortar changed the direction of her life.

Following in the footsteps of her father, Guerin, from Fermoy, Co Cork, joined the Irish Defence Forces in 1997. However, in December of that year, her military career was cut short when a mortar exploded close to where she was standing during a training exercise. Guerin lost her left hand as a result of the explosion.

“I stayed on in the Army for another few years after that, but I couldn’t go overseas, and I think when you can’t go overseas as a soldier, you know it’s time to call it quits.”

She left the Army, had a family and, over the years, learned to live with one hand.

READ MORE

But there are still some things that are difficult, Guerin (48) says – for example, driving.

The Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Scheme exists to assist those with disabilities to make often-costly adaptations to their cars, by means of government tax breaks.

To be accepted on to the scheme, a valid primary medical certificate is required. However, under the current criteria set out – which have not changed since 1968 – those with single-arm amputations do not qualify for the certificate.

“I’m considered disabled, but I’m not disabled enough,” Guerin says. “I’ve been told I don’t tick the right box. There’s no box for me to tick.”

As a result, Guerin hasn’t been able to make all the adaptations to her car that she needs. “I have a car, it’s automatic, but I’ve not got many adaptations done to it, because it costs a lot of money to get a lot of adaptations done,” she says.

Recently, she’s had sterile injections in her right arm because of overuse. “I’m reaching for indicators, for wipers, trying to dim lights, with one hand. It all kind of affects it.”

In April, a group of amputees addressed the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Disability Matters, outlining their case for a change to the criteria for the primary medical certificate. The group, led by single-arm amputee and Co Westmeath man David Digan, argued that the Government is in breach of its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Among those in attendance at the Oireachtas committee in April was Paul Fitzsimons. He lost his right hand in 2019 following a diagnosis with a rare form of cancer called sarcoma. The amputation worked, and Fitzsimons (56), from Cork Street in the south inner city, has been free of cancer since.

Since the amputation, Fitzsimons left his job of 25 years at Dublin Bus behind, and his love of motorcycles and playing guitar have taken a back seat. Instead, he fills his time by volunteering with Newlane FC in Clondalkin, where he is chairman.

Fitzsimons relies heavily on access to his car for his role at the club, among other things. He paid a substantial figure for a new car following his amputation, using much of his ill-health retirement payout to finance the purchase.

He had hoped that he would claim tax back on the purchase, by ways of the disabled drivers’ scheme, he says, but has since found out that he is ineligible. “The plan was that we would get between €10,000 and €12,000 in VRT and VAT,” he says.

In Fitzsimons’ case, he doesn’t need adaptations for his current car – he just needs help keeping it on the road, he says. He has been twice turned down for a primary medical certificate. Both Fitzsimons and his wife – who is also out of work – are in receipt of an invalidity pension payment.

“It’s unbelievable to think that they turn people down like that, and hide behind criteria, not to look after people that way,” he says. “I can never understand – they deemed me disabled enough to be to be eligible for the invalidity pension, but yet I wasn’t eligible enough to receive the healthcare certificate.”

Ger Rae (47), who lives in Kilrane, Co Wexford, hopes that with some pressure on the Government, the scheme’s criteria can be changed.

In 2001, Rae was 24 years old, earning well in his job as a welder – “the job I always wanted to have,” he says – when everything changed. Rae was in Wexford town when his motorcycle crashed, and struck an 84-year-old pedestrian. The pedestrian died, while Rae suffered severe, life-changing injuries. He lost the use of his right lung when it was punctured by his ribs, suffered nerve damage and a shattered collarbone and shoulder blade.

About eight years ago, the continuing impact of the crash meant he needed his right hand amputated. Until recently, he had long given up trying to apply for the disabled drivers’ scheme following several rejections.

“I had basically given up on it, because we had tried so often,” Rae says.

His experience in trying to get the primary medical certificate mirrors that of many others. “It was said to me, ‘but sure, can’t you walk?’ That was their answer,” he says.

Rae stresses that he does not seek to benefit from the crash back in 2001 – rather, he wants to highlight the gaps in the scheme that leaves many amputees in Ireland without the financial supports granted to other disabled people. He now works with people with intellectual disabilities at Wexford Mental Health Association – while still finding the time to do some welding on the side.

In response to queries, a spokeswoman for the Department of Finance, the department responsible for the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Scheme, pointed to Minister for Finance Michael McGrath’s recent response to a parliamentary question, stating that he had concerns the scheme “is no longer fit for purpose”.

“I do not have responsibility for disability policy,” he said. “It will be a matter for Government to decide on any new scheme to replace the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Scheme.”

He noted that a report prepared by the National Disability and Inclusion Strategy Transport Working Group endorsed proposals for “a modern, fit-for-purpose vehicle adaptation scheme in line with international best practice” which would replace the disabled drivers’ scheme.

“Under the aegis of the Department of the Taoiseach, a senior officials’ group with officials from relevant departments and agencies are meeting to discuss the issues arising from the report and to map a way forward. My officials are proactively engaging with the group in respect of ways to replace the [disabled drivers’ scheme],” he said.

Another single-arm amputee, Evan (24) from Co Galway, says he is frustrated that he does not qualify for a primary medical certificate. “It’s just frustrating that there’s nothing there for me,” he says.

Evan, who did not want his surname published, was working two jobs at the time of the car crash that saw him lose his right arm. “I fell asleep behind the wheel. I’m extremely, extremely lucky to be alive – the car had flipped over a few times.”

Getting back on the road without the support of tax breaks will be a costly endeavour, he says. “If I were to start driving again, my only hope would be to get an older automatic, because I wouldn’t be able to afford a new one, and then you’d have to adapt it.”

A change in the criteria of the scheme may be a step towards regaining some independence, he says.

“I have my daughter, who’s turning two in July, and I have my son as well, who’s 10 weeks old. To be able to drop them to school, and have my own independence back, and go to the shop and not have to rely on my partner to do everything for me.”