SHARJAH //Kaltham Obaid Al Matrooshi savours her freedom every time she hauls herself out of her wheelchair and into her car.
Driving symbolises independence for the Emirati woman, who battled panic attacks to get back behind the wheel after a 1990 accident killed two brothers and a nephew, and left her paraplegic.
"When you drive a car your life starts again," says Ms Al Matrooshi, 44, the administrative manager of a primary healthcare centre in Ajman.
"I feel free, I get confidence. I did it so my fear would disappear. Maybe sometimes in life we think we are special; we say we are handicapped and we cannot walk.
"But I tell friends, 'Look around, you are still better. There are people worse than you'."
It took her a decade after the accident to drive again. She is now a vocal advocate encouraging people with special needs to learn to drive.
Rigorous physiotherapy and encouragement from family helped her to start over.
Ms Al Matrooshi had a driving licence before the accident but needed to renew the permit for a modified car with hand levers to operate the brakes and accelerator.
"I had to rub my head clean. I had to start as a new student from the beginning," she says. "When I was in a car I had to stop myself from shouting; I had to keep it all inside.
"I knew I had to change this, I had to break this feeling. If you want to change society's ideas, it requires a lot of effort."
The vice chairman for the ladies' section of Al Thiqah Club for the Handicapped in Sharjah, Ms Al Matrooshi motivates others with special needs to learn how to drive, stressing that it will end their dependence on others.
"Driving is a gift to yourself and others," she says. "Other people don't lose time picking up and dropping you off. It shows you can depend on yourself. You start your life again."
This freedom means everything to Abdul Rahman Al Kazarooni, an Omani national in a wheelchair because of polio, who constantly fights being stereotyped.
"My life is the same as normal people," says Mr Al Kazarooni, 39, a self-taught mechanic who also taught himself to drive and has fitted more than 100 cars with hand controls.
"When you have a car you can go anywhere, you don't need help from people.
"I never think I am handicapped. I even go to the desert like other people."
The two Sharjah club regulars believe self-reliance lies in overcoming the fear of the road.
Driving schools are pitching in with special facilities. The Emirates Driving Institute (Edi) began offering lessons in 2009 for people with disabilities in both legs.
It has trained instructors, cars with hand controls and a specially fitted car with a raised brake and accelerator unit for people of short stature.
But the driving tests conducted by the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) are the same as those for the able-bodied.
People with special needs are first assessed in the physical medicine and rehabilitation department of Rashid Hospital before training begins, in accordance with the RTA guidelines.
Once they secure a licence, their private cars can be customised to fit their needs as part of a partnership between Edi and Arabian Automobiles Nissan.
But the Edi instructor Abdul Bashir believes the real challenge is to get his students to relax on the road.
"They are scared so I take them where there is a lot of traffic to take out all their nervousness," Mr Bashir says.
He teaches 15 students, of whom five have disabilities.
"I chat with them to make them confident," Mr Bashir says. "We have to understand them first and what is on their mind to make them comfortable. Driving helps their life."