Learn to Drive Disability Vehicles in the Bay of Plenty with Gary Bishell

IMG 20230509 085255 resized 20230509 085615224 353x470 - Learn to Drive Disability Vehicles in the Bay of Plenty with Gary Bishell

Meet our team: Gary Bishell, doing plenty in the Bay

Gary Bishell works with us on an as-needed basis covering his home turf in the Bay of Plenty. Most of the time he’ll be dropping off modified cars and instructing people on how to drive them. And when it comes to experience and aptitude Gary knocks it out of the park.

He started his career as a Ministry of Transport Traffic Officer back in 1976, and it was a multi-role job at the time. As well as driving patrol cars and motorbikes around Gary had to do a week of license testing every six weeks, something he found he really enjoyed. Based in Palmerston North, he was disappointed with the driving instruction available in the area. So when he left the MoT he set up a driving school aiming to lift the quality of coaching. “I went from one car to four, then I ended up doing defensive driving courses as well in the evenings,” recounts Gary. He also took on the delivery of a Māori Access Course, as they were known at the time, focussed on getting drivers their Heavy Trade vehicle licence. “It was a four-week course, mostly on the theory side with a bit of practical driving, then they took their test. And we had a 100% pass rate.”

Helping people is something that Gary seems drawn to. It was clearly a motivator when he decided to join the ambulance service. He’d met a lot of the local team in Palmy as a Traffic Officer, sometimes ducking into the warmth of their base during cold, wet nights on his motorbike.  “They had a pool table and a decent coffee machine,” he recalls fondly. After leaving the MoT he was running a couple of dairies alongside his driving school when an ambulance officer suggested he come on board. Gary demurred, citing his three existing jobs. The ambo pointed out it was a voluntary role, to which Gary joked ‘What? People work for nothing?’ but volunteer he did, and he enjoyed it. Including the regular pick-up run taking people to their appointments which others were less keen on.

It wasn’t long before Gary realised the ambulance staff had no formal driver training at all. By now fully employed, Gary and a colleague went on to create a new course for the service. “We developed a course that was adopted nationally–unit standards, the whole works.” It began a 15 year stint with the service, training mostly volunteer staff right around the country.

While sharing his driving and instructing skills Gary became a fully trained paramedic. As well as being a front-line responder he took over responsibility for running the Mount Manganui ambulance service. It’s a medical background that helps him understand what many of Freedom Mobility’s clients are going through. “I’m always interested in what caused their injury and how they’re progressing with it,” he says. Recovering from recent spinal surgery himself, he can really relate to how such injuries affect people. “Often people don’t understand. One girl was being driven around after a crash on an off-road bike–a full halo fitted and everything,” recalls Gary. “She’d been a nurse and had a good understanding of her injuries but she found many people didn’t appreciate the seriousness. So to be able to talk to someone who does can be really helpful.”

Gary is also very sensitive to people’s understandable nervousness when their lives get turned upside down by injury, including the whole driving aspect. “They might have torn their Achilles, or broken and ankle, then the next minute they’re in a hand-control car,” he says. “It can be daunting.” This is where Gary’s long experience plays a crucial role. Back in his MoT testing days he would frequently run the tests for over-70s who had to be regularly re-tested. “They were incredibly nervous,” says Gary. “The prospect of losing their independence over a failed test was genuinely frightening. I learned then that it’s incredibly important to get on-side with people. To put them at their ease, find out what their thinking about, their anxiety. And to appreciate when it affects their concentration.”

Time and again, clients praise Gary’s easy-going nature and depth of understanding. It’s an interesting progression from his days when some were scared that Gary the Traffic Officer might take away their freedom and independence. Now, he’s very happy that his role is about putting those things back in place for Freedom’s clients.