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Someone You Should Know: Russell Cunningham

For most of us, driving somewhere is as simple as grabbing the keys and getting in the car. But watch Russell Cunningham go for a ride and you might never take driving for granted again. (WHAM photo)

For most of us, driving somewhere is as simple as grabbing the keys and getting in the car. But watch Russell Cunningham go for a ride and you might never take driving for granted again.

For Cunningham, who is 18 and uses a wheelchair, driving equals freedom. He says it was worth all the work – and there was a lot of work.

“I don't take no for an answer on a lot of things. I just like to be motivated,” Russell said.

Just getting into the driver’s seat is a process for Russell. Hanhart Syndrome affected the development of his legs, so he uses his arms to climb from his manual wheelchair into the back of the SUV he drives. He then puts down a mat and drags the wheelchair in behind him. The next step is an impressive climb over the seats to his place behind the wheel.

“I tell you I thought it was going to be a piece of cake,” Russell said.

Cunningham took driving lessons for a year at Rochester Rehabilitation’s Drive On program. It involves a full assessment of the potential driver’s abilities, and there’s no guarantee the lessons will lead to the student becoming a licensed driver.

“He knew this wasn't something he was just going to get down after a few hours,” says Bryan Rogers, a driver rehabilitation specialist at Rochester Rehabilitation. “He knew it was a journey to getting his license."

With special equipment, Cunningham is able to steer, accelerate and brake using hand controls. Mastering those, and the rules of the road, was required before Rogers would deem Cunningham ready to get his license.

For Cunningham’s mom Diane, who drove Russell from Bergen for his weekly lessons, there was the apprehension any mom feels when her child begins to drive.

“It's a step for him being independent," Diane said. "So I know I have to let him go forward with that and i just have to step back and let him do what he has to do.”

“I just decide to make the best of it and if things come up that I have trouble with I have to take time out to improve myself on them," Russell said. "You have to spend time to figure out how to do those things.”

The payoff came on the day Cunningham received his license. His instructor was just as thrilled.

“The day he got his license, those days are the best part of my job," Rogers said.

Cunningham has big plans for his future. The 2017 Byron-Bergen graduate is now in his first year at Monroe Community College. He hopes to become an engineer who studies air disasters so he can make flying safer.

He also say he is looking forward to taking a long ride.

“I would love to drive this across the country to Arizona, my favorite place,” Russell said.

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