Special Needs Zone
Q&A: Driving with Mobility Challenges
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How do I know what kind of vehicle or adaptive equipment I need?
There's no simple, "cookie-cutter" answer. But there are all sorts of assistive devices available, such as hand and foot controls, harnesses, wheelchair lifts, touch pad gear selectors, and voice recognition systems.
Common modifications include lowering the floor, raising the roof, and widening the entry. Of course, vehicles vary in their capacity to be adapted. For example, not all vehicles can accommodate wheelchair lifts.
What kind of vehicle you use will depend on which vehicle best matches your equipment needs, and your physical and cognitive abilities.
Your best bet is to be evaluated by a driver rehabilitation specialist, who will write a prescription describing the devices and vehicle adjustments you need. He or she is trained to help you determine and understand your individual requirements.
Will I be able to use the vehicle I currently own?
It's possible. Some vehicles are more suited to particular modifications than others. A driver rehabilitation specialist can advise you if your car will work for your particular situation.
The range of vehicle possibilities depends on the individual's physical, cognitive and personal requirements. These can include such variables as the height and width of your garage, the number of passengers you usually carry, the type and weight of wheelchair or scooter and your physical lifting capacity.
Vehicles with bench seats are preferable to bucket seats, since it's easier to slide across a bench seat. (Incidentally, the type of fabric used on the seat can dramatically change your ability to slide easily across it.) You could have a station wagon or sedan if you can transfer from a wheelchair or scooter, walk a short distance, or use basic hand controls.
If you live on a bumpy, rural road, we'd suggest you avoid lowered-floor minivan unless it's absolutely necessary. In addition to having reduced clearances, lowered minivans ride less comfortably over uneven roads.
Can other family members drive my vehicle?
Even though you may be looking for a convenient excuse to keep your mother-in-law from driving your car, the fact is, she still might be able to heist your jalopy for the weekend.
Whether family members can drive a modified vehicle depends upon the extent and type of modifications. In some cases, devices and controls can be removed--for example, some hand controls, foot controls and pedal extenders are portable. In other cases, drivers of the vehicle can be trained to use the new controls.
How do I find adaptive vehicles, devices, and the people to install and maintain them?
Just like any other drivers, you can purchase a new or a used vehicle. Once you have the right vehicle, a qualified installer can help you with the necessary modifications. Installation of adaptive devices entails modifications that often include welding, rewiring, and, sometimes, significant changes to the brake system, such as the addition of a second brake booster.
Because of the complexity involved, installation and maintenance of adaptive equipment are not for do-it yourselfers or the troglodytes at your local gas station. If the work is not done correctly, your warranties could be voided and your safety could be at risk. For these reasons, we recommend that you leave adaptive work to qualified, licensed professionals.
One group that certifies adaptive equipment businesses is NMEDA, the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association. NMEDA requires its members to follow NHTSA safety standards.
In short, you'll be going through Driver's Ed! Driver rehabilitation specialists are trained to use computer simulation and on the road experience to teach you how to competently operate your equipment.
Before you start with a rehab specialist, call your state's motor vehicle department and ask if there are any special licensing requirements or restrictions.
Adaptive devices or other modifications can significantly increase your vehicle's value and replacement cost. Check with your insurance agent, and make sure that once your vehicle is modified, you have special coverage for replacement cost, temporary transportation, and emergency expenses.
Specialized vehicles are more difficult to appraise and obtaining a bank loan can be more complicated.
Unfortunately, only limited financial assistance is available for the purchase of a new or used vehicle. However, most states will help pay for driver training and adaptive devices. Programs vary, so check with your state's vocational and rehabilitation agency and your state's contact for TAP, the Technical Assistance Project.
If you're shopping for a new car, check with the manufacturer. Some manufacturers have modest reimbursement programs for the purchase and installation of adaptive equipment.
You might also consider checking with local service clubs, such as Kiwanis, Elks, Rotary, or Lions.
If all else fails, call a few of the professional and volunteer organizations which promote opportunities for the disabled. Often, some of their staff and members are disabled and have been through the challenges of financing a vehicle. Veteran organizations and the Amputee Coalition of America have informal people-to-people networks which can help you wend your way through the process.
Adapted vehicles with hand controls, pedal extensions, lifts, and ramps are available. Before making a reservation, be sure to ask very specific questions, and make sure the rental agency has the exact adaptive equipment you need.
Yes! Or, to put it another way, let us quote from the Americans with Disabilities Act:
"Stations that are 100 percent self-service must pump gas for people with disabilities and cannot charge for assistance. The only stations exempt from this requirement are those that are 100 percent self-service and operate exclusively on a remote-control basis with a single cashier..."