Karen Somers Story
Karen Somers has a killer serve when playing tennis. It’s a sport she loves and is really good at. Another thing Karen is really good at is driving.
What makes this friendly and optimistic 34-year-old woman different from most people? It’s not that she lives with disabilities; it’s that she doesn’t make excuses.
In 1995, Karen came to Rochester Rehabilitation’s DriveOn program (formerly Driver Evaluation & Training) specifically for a driver evaluation and one-on-one driver training. She has Cerebral Palsy (CP), and wears an orthopedic brace on her left foot. Karen also has epilepsy, and a variety of learning challenges.
“I wanted to drive when I was 16,” says Karen, “and I took Driver’s Ed, but wasn’t really ready to drive until I was 18.”
Born a premature twin, Karen weighed less than 2 pounds at birth. As her tiny body struggled to develop, she experienced a stroke at 3 months old.
The situation facing the Somers family “was very stressful,” says Nina Somers, Karen’s mother. “We had just lost one child, and now faced raising the other with health issues.”
While she was growing up, Nina urged Karen to try things that she wanted to do, even when others believed it wasn’t possible – things like rollerskating, cycling and tennis.
Nina hired a tennis pro to help improve Karen’s hand-eye coordination. Karen worked at it and eventually progressed to junior group lessons.
Nina also took time to talk with teachers at Karen’s school and build a rapport. “Any individual who has a disability needs a strong advocate,” says Nina. “It’s important to research every option out there for your child.”
Nina believed Karen could drive, although it took awhile to convince her that she could do it. Nina had learned about the DriveOn program at Rochester Rehabilitation when Karen received services from other Al Sigl agency partners over the years.
“Not everyone is ready to drive when they reach 16,” according to Frank Cogliandro, Director of Physical Rehabilitation Services. “Two areas often overlooked are behavior and maturity. Most young adults are able to learn the basics of driving, but it is the mature beginner driver that succeeds driving safely.”
DriveOn’s curriculum is designed to meet individual needs. Whether or not they have a learning disability, or physical disability, they learn at their own pace, not some pre-determined timeline. Having a driver evaluation first narrows down what it will take to help an individual learn to drive.
“It’s a nerve-wracking experience,” says Nina, “to take your child to a road test. So we had Karen go with her driving instructor.”
The excellent personalized instruction proved to be an advantage in building Karen’s confidence so that she could pass her driver’s test. Adaptive equipment – Karen drives with a spinner knob – helps her to make turns smoothly. Ultimately, the biggest benefit for Karen was gaining her freedom and independence.
She believes the program is beneficial to all beginner drivers. “In addition to the skills you learn during one-on-one instruction,” says Karen, “the instructor also offers to go over any questions you might have before taking your road test.”
“The driver specialist also recommends the correct adaptive device and shows students how to use it,” adds Karen.
One of the first places she drove was to Midtown Athletic Club where she’s played tennis since she was 14 years old.
During a match, Karen throws the ball up with her left hand at 2 o’clock, right in front of her, with precision. “I put a lot of top spin on it,” says Karen.
According to some of the women she plays tennis with, it’s a tough serve to return. On the court, Karen is an impressive yet gracious player whose tenacity shows.
Karen has set and achieved many goals. She is a work in progress, and continues to explore and improve. Karen stays busy networking, volunteering, and playing sports.
When she began driving to unfamiliar places around town to get to events, often she found herself lost and unsure of how to get back home.
“I wanted her to be safe and figure out how to get to where she was going,” says Nina. Karen returned to DriveOn for additional help with directions.
“The great part of Rochester Rehabilitation is that they created a specific, personalized program to meet Karen’s needs,” says Nina.
According to Karen’s dad, David, driving has motivated Karen to get out and do things others wouldn’t have thought possible. “Karen has a lot of independence because she drives. She visits friends and goes to work. People with disabilities need to know that it shouldn’t stop them from driving.”
Karen earned her associates degree in Human Services from MCC, and is employed as a Teaching Assistant at Generations Childcare in Rochester.
Karen’s advice to young people who want to drive is: have a positive attitude. “You can do anything you want to,” says Karen, “as long as you put your mind to it.”