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Modified Vehicle

Driving On

It’s been almost 30 years since Heather Coulson’s life took an unexpected turn during her regular swim practice. A miscalculated dive from the starting blocks left her with a C5-C6 spinal cord injury at only 15 years old. With no leg movement, no fine motor skills in her fingers and a loss of some mobility in her arms, she spent almost a year in the hospital doing rehab, where she learned how to feed herself, and how to transfer and use her wheelchair.

Heather Coulson
Heather Coulson

Early on, Heather recognized that driving would give her independence. Her feelings were a mix of trepidation and nervous excitement about the driving and unlike many people, Heather was learning to drive with electronic equipment without ever having driven before. She did the usual teenager steps– studying the rules of the road first–but she also knew she would need patience to learn how to safely drive with equipment. Heather doesn’t remember any specific peer mentors helping her, but she credits her driving instructor, Remo Minichello, for making her feel comfortable and confident that she could do it. Remo carefully explained things to Heather and gave her good feedback at each lesson to master her skills.

While Heather has improved mobility in her arms and wrists since her accident, she started out using a Digitone® system (by EMC) because her wrists lacked strength. Digitone allows the driver to use eight audible tones that are assigned to different vehicle functions. The driver releases one switch after the tone is heard to activate the desired function. Given her comfort in using this system, she has continued to use the Digitone system in all her vehicles over the years.

“Do as much as you can independently. Have fun, keep learning, enjoy your life and get out and do things.”

Being tall, Heather has always had to be mindful of her vehicle choice and while she drove a full-sized modified van for many years, the Econoline vans and similar styles were discontinued roughly seven years ago. Recently, she was due for new vehicle, and she chose a Toyota Sienna XLE minivan with VMI side-entry conversion featuring an in-floor ramp. This gives Heather the headroom and chair space she needs.

Her new van includes EMC equipment with the Aevit system, a current version of what she’s been using for years. As a long-time client of Sparrowhawk, part of Silver Cross Automotive, Heather says her experience has been great, including several times over the years when the techs came out to fix or adjust things on the vehicle. 

Coulson driving system
Coulson driving system

Heather’s passion is commercial photography, particularly for food and products and she’s currently enrolled in the media communications program at Humber College in Toronto. She shares her life with her family and service dog Grandin (courtesy of the Lions Foundation of Canada), and she’s also thankful for Remo Minichello and his family, along with her personal support workers. She’s driven to Florida and Halifax with others, and she offers her thoughts to others in saying, “Do as much as you can independently. Have fun, keep learning, enjoy your life and get out and do things.”

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