The story of Jakub Tomeš, who got a licence even though he only uses his legs to drive a car, has called attention to something interesting. If there are overall winners after 20 years of freedom, then they are people with disabilities. The quality of their lives has changed significantly. And society has been realising that the handicapped do not represent a burden, but rather unexploited resources.
Even 20 years after the Velvet Revolution, there are many barriers, unpleasant habits and legal deficiencies that complicate the lives of people with disabilities. In the courtyard of a driving school in Přelouč, where, under great media attention, the armless Jakub Tomeš passed his driving test a few weeks ago, there is a melange of future drivers who sit around waiting for their practical exams. One soon gets the overall picture.
Zuzana and Jakub had to do with a different university than they had wanted to study in, simply because their school of dreams was full of the staircases that wheelchairs cannot cope with. Having finished university, Jakub now suffers from the most serious Czech problem: the mass abuse of the subsidy system intended for employing people with disabilities. In practice, the business organisation for which Jakub writes analyses from home receives state subsidies toward his salary, but keeps part of it and instead gives him various vouchers (for example, for spas or English courses) that he does not need or want. The driving school’s employee, Jan Solař, himself in a wheelchair, adds stories on the abuse of parking lots for the disabled and complications in fuelling up.
The mostly young men and women have not come to complain, however. The driving school, the only facility in the Czech Republic to teach people with disabilities, prides itself on making its students more mobile, and employees say that the experience has inspired and enriched their lives. The owner, Pavel Peml, opened an ordinary driving school after the revolution, but 10 years later grew tired of it. “A man came, threw CZK 5,000 on the table and told me to give him his licence. These people are completely different. They are extremely motivated and persistent: A driving licence means a lot to them and it’s a pleasure to work with them,” said the director, who just got back from angling in Norway. Then he added in a half-whisper: “You know, the company runs itself; I don’t even have to be here. I just come to skim off the cream, to talk with them, go out dancing or for a beer. It gives me energy.”
The school came into existence eight years ago, when Peml was contacted by a friend who asked him whether he would teach his son, a wheelchair user, to drive. Peml had to refuse because he didn’t know how to do it, but the idea kept him awake at night. He searched until he found a mechanic in the nearby Týnec nad Labem who customises cars to suit the needs of individual drivers. Peml had his car’s driving system changed so that it could be operated by hands only and recalls even today how he went to meet his friend in a restaurant, where he told him triumphantly, “Your boy can start immediately.” He was excited about teaching a driver with a disability and that was the first customer on the road to 105 successful graduates of his school.
When customers show up for interviews, employees measure their limbs to find out to what extent the person has command of his or her arms or legs. After that staff submit the requirements to the mechanic from Týnec, who then produces a driving system. (Besides Jakub Tomeš, who uses his legs for driving, the school has had a male client who steers using one limb, a driver with arm stumps and quadriplegics.) The training itself takes 14 days, which clients spend accommodated at the driving school: Tuition and boarding, including services such as laundry and ironing, all cost CZK 17,000. If clients are interested, the mechanic can install an identical system as that used at the school into their cars. The lessons differ from ordinary driver’s training, as some students, for example, have to first learn how to get themselves and their wheelchairs into their cars. Clients also spend a lot of time on a driving simulator inside the building.
A driver’s licence plays a very important role: It represents a ticket to the rest of the world, a means of personal freedom and, especially, the possibility to find a job. According to Labour and Social Affairs Ministry statistics 50% of people with physical disabilities cannot find job, but 80% of those who got licences at Peml’s driving school have work.
The aid that enables independence is generous: The state provides a subsidy of up to CZK 100,000 for the purchase of a car and it fully covers the installation of special driving systems, the expense of which may climb to almost the same amount as the car cost. However, as in other areas, this generosity is half-baked to certain extent. “I have 500 requests for courses in my inbox,” Peml said, “but many of those people simply don’t have the money, and we, as a private company, cannot draw grants. Nobody funds the driving licences, and students have to save money from their disability pensions for a long time before they can afford the course.” A Labour and Social Affairs Ministry spokesman was not able to explain why there are no subsidies for driving courses, but he does not exclude such a possibility in the future.
There are several more weak points in the otherwise good system of aid. Václav Krása, the chairman of the Czech National Disability Council and a former deputy, said that he would like to introduce a system similar to those in Austria and Germany. A person that becomes paralysed after an accident, for example, could draw from an extensive package of help; relevant institutions will help find barrier-free accommodation, provide physical therapy and cross-training courses, if necessary, and give assistance with finding jobs. It makes sense: An employed person is not only more satisfied, but also more economically profitable for society. Krása has already failed once with such a bill at the ministry, but he currently is working on a new one that should have a better chance of being passed.
A school desk for Jakub
The driving school course represented a challenge for Jakub Tomeš, an armless driver now widely known through media reports. “I was concerned about whether I would manage a car with my legs, and the Transport Ministry had to approve it,” said the 18-year-old, who is praised as a skilful driver by his teachers, “but, in the end, it wasn’t that complicated.” He managed it excellently, and these days he hopes to achieve another target. He enrolled in a technical high school where he will be helped by a personal assistant.
He was born without arms. As a child, he naturally used his legs, and, to his delight, friends sometimes also used only theirs while playing with him. The biggest problem for his parents were his frequent falls that used to end with bad injuries because the boy was not able to protect himself with arms. However, the biggest clash with reality came when he was to start primary school. It was in the second half of the 1990s, and, although the integration of disabled people was no longer sci-fi, the practice still didn’t meet the promises made. “There are three primary schools in Česká Třebová, and all of them refused to accept him,” Jakub’s mother recalled in the garden of the family’s house. “I had a photo album with pictures showing what Jakub could do, but the principals didn’t even want to see them. One of them thought that he would have to turn pages for him in a textbook.”
The family eventually found more willing pedagogues in a neighbouring village. The class teacher agreed that she would teach Jakub and prepared other children for his arrival: All children were asked to put their hands in their pockets and were trying to exist without them for a period. The family had a special desk made for their son, and he learned to write, draft and use scissors with his legs in the course of the first five years. He attended a school in Česká Třebová for his elementary education. “I went to watch him for a whole morning at a school in the neighbouring village, and I was surprised at how incredibly self-sufficient he was,” said his then-teacher, Hana Unzeitigová. “He ate with a spoon in the school canteen; when he got a new exercise-book that was sealed in plastic, he cut the wrapping off. Children treated him as their equal; he needed their help only from time to time. I think that it was an enriching experience for everybody.”
Besides the school episode, the family does not complain too much about being refused, on the contrary, their experiences are rather humorous. For example, when they went to sign their son up for a swimming course and the trainer reacted by saying, “But lady, it’s deep here.” (Jakub became a very successful competitive swimmer.) However, self-confidence can be very fragile for people with disabilities, and after primary school Jakub chose to take the two-year business programme at the Jedlička Institute and Schools; he was afraid that he would not be able to keep up with the pace at other high schools. He has since picked up the courage and found a pedagogical assistant, and he has been attending the technical school since 1 September. “We’ve been very lucky with people,” Tomeš’s mother says, summing up her son’s life.
The photos accompanying this article were taken during a public event organised by Vlastní Cestou (Their Own Way), an association that provides personal assistance for wheelchair-bound Czechs. The group works with volunteers as well as paid professional assistants, organising regular workshops and social activities for people with disabilities. In order to attract public attention, they hold cultural events where people can learn about what it’s like to live with a disability.
Jakub Koucký is a young man, who, although fully dependant on his wheel chair, is an avid practitioner of adrenaline sports. He has his own car, which he’s able to drive himself. Right now, he is working on his own project, the NGO Adrenalin bez bariér (Adrenaline Without Barriers). As part of the project, he and his friend test various outdoor and adrenaline sports from the perspective of people with disabilities, so that others like them can do these activities too.