Thirty years ago, if a trucker became disabled, most likely his career was over. He had little choice but to find a new profession or sit at home. Times have changed. With new laws, technology and attitudes toward the disabled, drivers can still drive after injury or illness in some cases.
FMCSR 391.41 lays out the physical requirements for drivers. Some disqualifying disabilities such as amputation/defect of a hand, foot, leg or arm can be waived by application for a waiver under FMSCR 391.49. Waivers are applied for by letter and are considered on a case-by-case basis. The driver will have to demonstrate, or their carrier will have to certify, that the driver can drive safely and perform his/her duties. The driver may have to provide medical records and will most likely be required to have a physical more often than once every two years.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA 1990), a company has to make reasonable accommodations for an employee as long as it does not create undue hardship for the company. In trucking, this might mean not taking fingerprint loads for a disabled driver or making other arrangements for loading/unloading.
A case in point: I am under physical limitations and cannot lift or pull over 50 pounds due to a disabled shoulder. A couple of months ago, I was in a dead freight area. The only load available without excessive deadhead was a driver-assist load going to a Wal-Mart store. Before taking the load, my employer contacted the Wal-Mart store, explained the situation and verified that the store would provide someone to tailgate the 2000-pound pallets. If the store would not have agreed, my employer would not have taken the load. Both my employer and the store provided "reasonable accommodation."
Reasonable accommodation is probably the most misunderstood part of the ADA. It does not mean that you are relieved from any lumper fees or any other common loading/unloading fees. Nor does it mean that a company would have to remodel their facility to accommodate your disability. It might mean for example, that if you are on a dedicated run and your receiver did not have accessible restrooms, they might put in hand rails for you. It does not mean that a receiver that you only visit once has to do so.
If you require special equipment, you will most likely have to provide that for yourself. Vocational Rehabilitation agencies can be of assistance in financial help, if you qualify, and can also find suppliers of such equipment for you. If you need a specially spec'd truck, you will have to buy it for yourself. New technology has provided auto shift and automatic transmissions for trucks, tilt and telescope steering wheels, and swivel seats. Condos and larger sleepers provide more ease of movement.
Four years ago, while laid over in Ontario, California, I saw a truck pull in with a super sleeper. The driver parked on the end of a row nearest the truck stop building. A wide door opened on the sleeper and a lift folded out. A man in a wheelchair wheeled onto the lift and was lowered to the ground. He was a double amputee.
I spoke to him about the adaptations he had to make to drive. He related that he'd had to take a chance on spec'ing the truck before he got a waiver so he could prove that he could still drive, but he had gotten an intrastate company lined up for a dedicated run from plant to plant. His truck had an automatic transmission and hand controls. He waited on having the sleeper extended until he got his waiver, which had taken a fight to get, but he prevailed. His company provided someone to open and close his trailer doors for him and they had ramps into the dock areas. Asking him what the most difficult thing about driving was for him, he responded with a scowl, "Finding a parking spot that is wide enough to lower my lift. Non-disabled people keep parking in the few designated disabled parking spots."
Public perception of disabled people has changed radically over the last 20 years. Before the ADA, most disabled people were isolated in institutions or at home due to the inaccessibility of jobs, services and businesses. Many felt shame because they were thought somehow different than non-disabled people. Since the creation of the ADA and the increased media attention about the disabled, we see disabled people in every walk of life: actors, athletes, politicians and, yes, even truckers.
If you become disabled, don't just hang up your keys assuming your driving days are over. Check the laws and regulations. Check for available resources to get adaptive equipment if you need it and keep looking for a company that will give you a chance to get back on the road.
If you find that you cannot drive, your experience can stand you in good stead in finding a job within the trucking industry besides driving. Becoming disabled is not a stopping point; it is just a Y in the road.
Written By: Sandy Long