Sixteen-year-old Aaron Friesen spent his summer striving for a dream he’s had his whole life: Learning how to drive. Sure, virtually every teen wants the sweet taste of freedom that comes with their own set of wheels and a driver’s licence. Aaron’s journey is all the more remarkable because he was born with spastic bilateral cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair his entire life.
A Lifelong Desire to Drive
“For my whole life, I’ve been relying on people,” Aaron told our AMA video crew outside his school near Vegreville, Alta., about 1 1/2 hours east of Edmonton. “I’ve just kind of wanted to be like everybody else.”
At the family’s home in the hamlet of Ranfurly, Aaron’s mother Agatha said Aaron’s uncompromising determination has been there since the day he was born. “If he put his head to something that he wanted, he would make sure he achieved that goal no matter what it took,” Agatha told us on a break from sorting mail and handing out stamps at the post office she runs out of her home.
Spastic bilateral cerebral palsy is a condition he says tightens the muscles in his whole body, but mostly targets his legs. “I rely on my upper-body to do everything.” As soon as he turned 14, Aaron got his learners permit. But without a vehicle fitted with a ramp for his wheelchair or hand controls for the brakes and accelerator, Aaron still had to rely on his mom to heave him in and out. And he was still stuck in the passenger seat.
Moving to the Driver’s Seat
Surfing the Internet, Aaron looked longingly at ads for adapted vehicles. But his jaw dropped at the prices — in excess of $50,000 or much more. That’s when his creativity and determination kicked in. Aaron entered a contest to win an adapted van, placed in the top five in Canada, but fell short in the semi-finals.
He was upset, but the teacher who drives him to school, Joyce Baker, said it didn’t stop him. “As far as he was concerned, this was a hiccup in the road and we were still going after that van,” she said. Over the next six months, Aaron, his family, and dozens of people from nearby communities held dinners, bake sales, auctions — anything they could to raise the $51,000 price tag. “We just try to help him achieve what he wants because he won’t give up anyways,” said Agatha.
By February, the money was there and Aaron had the keys to a sparkling blue van with a ramp, hand controls and space-age swivelling driver’s chair that lets him slip in and out of his wheelchair with ease.
“When I first picked it up, it was unreal,” Aaron said. “It’s a cool colour, too. I like it.”
Tried & Tested
In April, Aaron took AMA’s Online New Driver program, scoring an impressive 96.7% on the final exam. In June, while his classmates were dreaming of long summer nights by the lake, Aaron started intensive driver training at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton.
While some students take 30 hours or more to become confident behind the wheel, Aaron wowed his instructor and was declared exam-ready in just over 10 hours. On Aug. 19, he took his Class 5 road test in Tofield. With his mom and younger brother Benji looking on anxiously, Aaron pulled up to the curb and wheeled out of his van. Sporting an irrepressible grin from ear-to-ear, he uttered two simple words: “I passed.”