Campaign at Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay succeeds in green-lighting high-tech Joysteer
Andrew Swidzinski recently did something he could have only dreamed about a few years ago: He got behind the wheel of a vehicle and drove out into the streets of Montreal.
Ever since a rare neurological disorder left him partially paralyzed in 2018, Mr. Swidzinski has been forced to give up driving and to leave his Honda Civic in his brother’s garage. But now, his fortunes are changing. He and a handful of others are becoming the first in Quebec to be licenced to use the Joysteer, a high-tech system that allows those with limited mobility to drive again.
They’ve reached this milestone thanks to the perseverance and know-how of staff at the Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay Rehabilitation Centre, a facility of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal.
For close to two decades, Dana Benoit, the centre’s Program Manager for Adult Neurology Programs, has fought a relentless campaign to urge Quebec officials to authorize the use of electronic driving controls. She wrote letters, talked to engineers at conferences, and even drove to Quebec City to speak to decision-makers. Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay also launched a successful pilot project with three users in 2018 to demonstrate the safety and feasibility of the Swiss-made Joysteer.
“I thought I could have some impact on changing policy,” Ms. Benoit explains. “I was advocating for clients so we could provide them with the freedom to be as autonomous as they can be—because at the end of the day, that’s our mission.”
Last October, after some 20 years of efforts, the team at the rehabilitation centre’s Driving Evaluation and Vehicle Adaptation Program got the celebratory news: The Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ) lifted its moratorium on electronic driving controls and approved the Joysteer system. It also meant that Quebec would fund vehicle adaptations—the only jurisdiction in North America to do so—and people could become licensed to drive with the high-tech devices.
The decision opens new horizons for Mr. Swidzinski and others with disabilities who are unable to use other forms of adapted driving methods. The Joysteer’s electronic system features an easy-to-manipulate joystick, miniature steering wheel and other hand controls that enable users to operate the vehicle’s gas, brake and steering. Suitable for many vehicles, it’s a game changer for those with muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries or other conditions that limit their strength or range of motion.
“This gives a chance to people who wouldn’t have been able to drive otherwise,” says Alyssa Merilees, Clinical Coordinator of the Driving Evaluation and Vehicle Adaptation Program at Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay. “We’re excited to offer them this new opportunity. We have a solution that we didn’t have before.”
Mr. Swidzinski, a notary who lives in Pointe-Claire, is paralyzed in his left arm since being affected by Transverse myelitis, but he remains able to use his right arm to steer with the Joysteer. The 37-year-old hopes to resume driving again.
“This will mean having autonomy,” he said at the Constance-Lethbridge site in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce as he prepared to head out for a practice drive with Occupational Therapist Minh-Thy Truong. “I can earn a living and go out again.”
Another client, Mathieu Dionne, had given up hope of ever driving again after a motorcycle accident in 2015 left him a quadriplegic. However, after being referred to Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay, the resident of Saint-Colomban, northwest of Montreal, began to train to use the Joysteer with Occupational Therapist Kristian Thivierge.
“This will give me a lot of freedom,” says Mr. Dionne, 34. “I won’t have to depend on other people to drive me around and I’ll be able to go out and do things for myself. The Joysteer will change my life.”
“This gives a chance to people who wouldn’t have been able to drive otherwise. We’re excited to offer them this new opportunity.”Alyssa Merilees, Clinical Coordinator of the Driving Evaluation and Vehicle Adaptation Program
The breakthrough confirms Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay’s status as a leader in vehicle adaptation and training. The Constance-Lethbridge site has been the only rehabilitation centre in Canada, along with one other in British Columbia, to have a Joysteer-equipped training van and the specialized expertise to evaluate and train potential users. As a result, since 2018, the rehabilitation centre of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal has been helping clients with the technology from across Eastern Canada; electronic driving controls are already permitted elsewhere in the country.
Now that Quebec has given the system the green light, Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay has certified six occupational therapists to work with the Joysteer. It’s also mentoring professionals in other rehabilitation centres in Quebec to learn the system.
Ultimately, the Constance-Lethbridge team sees access to high-tech electronic driving in Quebec as part of its legacy. “We’ve been working so hard for so many years to get this off the ground. It took a lot of perseverance,” Ms. Merilees says. “But we never gave up.”
* The Constance-Lethbridge site was able to equip one of its training vehicles with the Joysteer system thanks to the support of donors to the Habilitas Foundation.