Are you a new wheelchair user? Do you have a disability that effects your ability to drive a car normally? Do you want to drive again but not sure how you can? This post will be all about options for disabled people to drive including adapted driving tests, hand controls, car modifications, wheelchair accessible vehicles, and more!
Step One: Can I Drive?
While disability alone does not disqualify you from being able to drive, certain disabilities, medical conditions, and medications may impact your ability to safely drive. However, there are many people who can’t drive the typical way because of a disability, but could safely drive with adaptations and or restrictions. So how I do figure out if I can drive?
Adapted driving assessments are designed to evaluate new or newly disabled drivers on their ability to safely drive and help determine any adaptations or special equipment that would help them do so. These assessments are completed by a Certified Driving Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS) and consists of a clinical evaluation and an on the road test (if determined to be safe). To find a driving specialist near you, you can search on the Association of Driver Rehabilitation Specialists’ directory. A referral from a specialist (usually a doctor, OT, driving school or PT) is usually needed to attend a driving rehabilitation program.
The clinical evaluation tests physical abilities, strength, vision, perception, attention, and reaction time through a series of tasks and movements and can often be billed through your insurance. If you are determined to be a good candidate for driving, you will then complete an on the road portion which is similar to a test a new driver completes. If adaptations are needed to drive, this part will be completed with that equipment. Examples of such adaptations include: hand controls, steering knobs, custom seating, lifts, ramps, special mirrors, and special buttons. Once the evaluation is complete, a summary will be completed with the findings, recommendations, and equipment or restrictions. The equipment can then be installed by a mobility equipment dealer. Dealers can be found through the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association’s (NMEDA) directory.
Not sure where to start or find a program? Oftentimes states will have a driving rehabilitation program as a part of their Vocational Rehabilitation department. In some places, these services (evaluation, equipment, training) are free to residents. If you are a veteran, the VA has Vocational Rehab department that provides extensive services. I will talk more about this in the adapted car section.
Step Two: Adapted Driving Devices and Vehicles
There are a wide variety of devices that can be used and I am by no means an expert, but here are some of them I learned about in my research and evaluation.
- Hand Controls: Hand controls can be used to replace using your legs to control the brake and accelerator. These can be needed if you have paralysis and amputation but also any disability that effects your lower limbs. There are a wide variety of hand controls and your CDRS may recommend a specific type, brand, or let you decide. For more information about specific types of hand controls, click here! If you have spasms, there are blocks that can be put in front of the pedals so you don’t accidentally hit them.
Note: if you require hand controls, you are only allowed to drive automatic transmission cars.
- Steering Knobs: If you only have one arm or are using hand controls, a steering knob may be recommended. These come in a variety of types from knob shaped to post shaped and allow for easier turning without letting go of the wheel or needing a second hand.
- Switches: Switches can be added to the wheel, steering knob, or hand controls and are customizable buttons that allow the user more convenient access to turn indicators, wipers, hazards and other car functions. Some examples can be found here.
- Transfer Seats: These are seats that can be put in a wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) that allows the user to slide and turn the drivers seat back to make transferring from a wheelchair easier. This is a great option for people who don’t want to drive from their wheelchair but can’t load their wheelchair in their car independently. A video demonstrating how it works can be seen here.
- Pedal Extensions: Pedal extensions are devices attached to the brake and accelerator that allow people with short legs to reach the pedals from a comfortable driving position.
- Lifts: Lifts are adaptations that help get you and or your wheelchair into your vehicle. There are car seats that swivel out the door and lower for easy transfers and even foldable boards that lift you up into the driver’s seat that can be put in several models of cars. There are also lifts that lift your wheelchair into your car, trunk or on top of your car. There are also lifts that lift you while in your wheelchair into your vehicle. These types of lifts are common in pickup trucks and SUVS. Depending on your ability, type of wheelchair, car make and model, and lifestyle this may be a great option for you.
- Ramps/ Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAVs): For those who driver from their wheelchair, have large electric wheelchairs, or cannot load their wheelchair independently, having an adapted car with a ramp can be life changing. However, to be able to accommodate the ramp and the user a full conversion must be done to the car making these vehicles very expensive. WAVs come in many make and models from your typical minivan to SUV’s to full size vans with lifts. While these vehicles are expensive, there are also funding options, grants, and programs that can help you obtain one. If you have a disability that has a foundation (MS, Parkinson’s, ALS), they may have grants and programs to help pay for this equipment and adaptations. Another resource is your states Vocational Rehab program. In many states, if the vehicle could help you return to work or school, Voc. Rehab will pay for the cost of the adaptations and vehicle conversion once. This means you would just need to pay for the retail value of the car (if you can’t modify one you have).
To learn about my experience with adapted driving and vehicles, read my post here!