Adapting Motor Vehicles for People with Disabilities

New and existing adaptive technologies continue to broaden opportunities for people with disabilities to drive both comfortably and safely. Some of these adaptive technologies are as simple as swivel seats for more convenient access. Others, such as hand controls, may be necessary for a driver to safely operate a vehicle. Whatever your requirements, chances are good that adaptive equipment is available to support your special driving needs and allow you to maintain the freedom offered by the open road.

This information is based on the experience of driver rehabilitation specialists and other professionals who work with people who require adaptive devices for their motor vehicles. The steps outlined represent a proven process – evaluating your needs, making sure the vehicle “fits” you properly, choosing appropriate features, installing and knowing how to use adaptive devices, practicing good vehicle maintenance – that can help you avoid costly mistakes when modifying or purchasing a vehicle to accommodate your driving requirements.

Also included is general information on cost savings, licensing requirements, and organizations to contact for additional assistance. Although the brochure focuses on drivers of modified vehicles, each section also contains important information for people who drive passengers with disabilities.

Investigate Cost-Saving Opportunities and Licensing Requirements

Cost-Saving Opportunities

With such a wide range of adaptive equipment solutions available, associated costs for modifying a vehicle can vary greatly depending on an individual’s needs. Some adaptive equipment, such as a special seat-back cushion, can provide a better view of the road for as little as $50. More complex equipment, such as hand controls, can be purchased for under $1,000. However, a new vehicle modified with adaptive equipment will cost anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000.

Whether you are modifying a vehicle you now own or purchasing a new vehicle with adaptive equipment, it pays to do your homework first. By consulting with a driver rehabilitation specialist before you buy, you can learn what adaptive equipment you need now or may need in eh future, avoid paying for equipment you don’t need, and learn about opportunities for public and private financial assistance.

There are programs that may help pay part or all of the cost of vehicle modification.

  • Some nonprofits that advocate for individuals with disabilities offer programs that may help pay for adaptive devices. generally, these groups and programs represent local resources. To learn about any available programs in your area, contact your state government office that handles services for persons with disabilities.
  • Automotive insurance may cover all or part of the cost of adaptive equipment if your need for such equipment is a result of a motor vehicle crash.
  • Workers’ compensation typically covers the cost of adaptive equipment if your need for such equipment is a result of a job-related injury.
  • Most major vehicle manufacturers offer rebates on adaptive equipment, usually up to $1,000, provided you purchase a vehicle less than one year old. Your local automobile dealer can supply information on these programs and assist you with the application process. Contact malformation on these programs and assist you with the application process.
  • Some states waive the sales tax for adaptive devices if you have a doctor’s prescription for their use.
  • The cost of adaptive equipment may be tax deductive.

Licensing Requirements

All states require a valid learner’s permit or driver’s license to receive an on-the-road driving evaluation. You cannot be denied the opportunity to apply for a permit or license because of age or disability. However, a driver’s license with restrictions may be issued based on your need of adaptive equipment.

Evaluate Your Needs

Driver rehabilitation specialists preform comprehensive evaluations to identify the adaptive equipment most suited to your needs and medical condition As part of this process, a rehabilitation specialist will take into consideration you future equipment needs based on your medical condition and the repetitive stress an adaptive aid may place on a particular muscle group.

In addition, you can expect a complete evaluation to include vision screening as well as:

  • Muscle strength, flexibility, and range of motion;
  • Coordination and reaction time;
  • Judgement and decision making abilities; and
  • Ability to drive with adaptive equipment.

After you finish the evaluation you should receive a report containing specific recommendations on driving requirements or restrictions. You should also be given a complete list of any recommended vehicle requirements or modifications. The recommendations should suggest obtaining on-the-road training to practice safe operation of the equipment and learn safe driving habits.

Finding a Qualified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist

Check with a rehabilitation center in your area to find a qualified driver rehabilitation specialist to perform your evaluation. You’ll find rehabilitation enters for each state listen on eh web sites for the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (ADED), and the American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AODTA). These associations maintain lists of qualified driver rehabilitation specialists in areas across eh United States and Canada.

Paying for an Evaluation

  • Vocational rehabilitation agencies and workers’ compensation agencies may assist in the cost of a driver evaluation.
  • Your health insurance company may pay for part or all of the evaluation. Find out from your insurance company if you need a doctor’s superscription or other documentation to receive such benefits.
  • If you’re a senior citizen, ask if your driver rehabilitation specialist offers a discount to seniors.

Determining the Best Time to Seek a Driving Evaluation

Consult with your doctor to make sure you are physically and physiologically prepared to drive. Being evaluated too soon after an injury, stroke, or other trauma may be misleading because it may show the need for adaptive equipment that you will not need in the future. You want to be functioning at your best when you have a driver evaluation. For the evaluation, you will need to take any equipment you normally use, such as a walker or neck brace. If you use a wheelchair or obtain a new one, be sure to tell your driver rehabilitation specialist prior to the evaluation.

Evaluating Passengers With Disabilities

Driver rehabilitation specialists may also provide advice on compatibility and transportation safety issues for passengers with special needs. They determine the type of seating needed and the person’s ability to enter and exist the vehicle. They provide advice on the purchase of modified vehicles and recommend appropriate wheelchair lifts or other equipment that would work in your vehicle.

If you have a child who requires a special type of safety seat, evaluators make sure the seat fits the child properly. They also make sure you can properly install the seat in your vehicle.

Selecting the Right Vehicle

Although the purchase or lease of a vehicle is your responsibility, your mobility equipment dealer and driver rehabilitation specialist are qualified to ensure the vehicle you select can be modified to meet your adaptive equipment needs. Take the time to consult with these professionals before you make your purchase decision.

The following questions can help with vehicle selection. They can also help determine if you can modify a vehicle you already own:

  • Does the vehicle have the cargo capacity (in pounds) to accommodate the equipment you require?
  • Will there be enough space and cargo capacity to accommodate your family or other passengers once the vehicle is modified?
  • Is there adequate parking space at home and at work for the vehicle and for loading/unloading a wheelchair?
  • Is there adequate parking space to maneuver if you use a walker?
  • What additional options are necessary for the safe operation of the vehicle?

If a third party is paying for the vehicle, adaptive devices, or modification costs, find out if there are any limitations or restrictions on what is covered. Always get a written statement on what a funding agency will pay before making your purchase. Once you select and purchase a vehicle, be aware that you will need to also purchase insurance to cover your vehicle while it’s being modified – even though it will be off the road during this period.

Standard Features to Look for in a New Passenger Vehicle

Before purchasing a new vehicle, always sit in it first to make sure you are comfortable. Check to see that you can enter and exit the vehicle with ease. If possible, take it out for a test drive. How well does the car fit to your body? To prevent air bag-related injury, you should keep 10 inches between your breast bone and the steering wheel, which contains the driver’s side air bag. At the same time, you’ll need to be able to easily reach the pedals while maintaining a comfortable line of sight above the adjusted steering wheel. Also, make sure the vehicle provides you with good visibility in all directions – front, rear, and sides. Your dealer can demonstrate the use of adaptive features, such as adjustable foot pedals and driver seats, which can help ensure a good person-vehicle lift.

When selecting a vehicle, look for and ask about available features designated to improve both the comfort and safety of drivers with disabilities. Some of these features are:

  • High or extra-wide doors;
  • Adjustable foot pedals;
  • Large interior door handles;
  • Over-sized knobs with clearly visible labels;
  • Support handles to assist with entry and exit;
  • Large or adjustable-size print for dashboard gauges;
  • Seat adjusters that can move the seat in all directions – particularly raising it so the driver’s line of sight is 3′ above the adjusted steering wheel; and
  • Dashboard-mounted ignition rather than steering column-mounted ignition.

Choose a Qualified Mobility Dealer to Modify your Vehicle

Even a half-inch change in the lowering of a van floor can affect a driver’s ability to use equipment or to have an unobstructed view of the road. So, it’s important that you take the time to find a qualified dealer to modify your vehicle. Your driver rehabilitation specialist may b able to provide referrals depending on when you live and your vehicle modification and adaptive equipment needs.

Note: Some state agencies specify the dealer you must use of you want reimbursement. For example, some states require that dealers bidding on State require that dealers bidding on state vocational rehabilitation specialist may be members of the National Equipment Dealer’s (NMEDA’s) Quality Assurance Program.

To find qualified mobility equipment dealers, to begin with qualified driver rehabilitation specialists? Will they look at your vehicle before you buy it? Do they require a prescription from a physician or driver evaluation specialist? How long will it take before they can start working on your vehicle?

Also ensure that the dealer you choose to modify your vehicle is registered with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA). In order to adapt a vehicle to meet your needs, registered equipment dealers are permitted to modify existing federally mandated safety equipment. In addition, registered mobility equipment dealers must provide you with a written statement regarding the work that was performed, as well as any Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards affected by their modification work on a label adjacent to the original equipment manufacturer’s label or the modifier’s certification level. These labels are often found inside the driver’s door.

Questions to consider in evaluating a mobility equipment dealer’s qualifications are listed below:

  • Is the dealer registered with NHTSA?
  • Is the dealer a member of NMEDA, and a participant in this organization’s Quality Assurance Program?
  • What type of training has the staff received?
  • What type of warranty is provided on work?
  • Does the dealer provide ongoing service and maintenance?
  • Are replacement parts stocked and readily available?

If you are satisfied with the answers you receive, check references; then arrange to visit the dealer’s facility. Once you are comfortable with a dealer’s qualifications, you will want to ask more specific questions, such as:

  • How much will the modification cost?
  • Are third-party payments accepted?
  • How long will it take to modify the vehicle?
  • Can the equipment be transferred to a new vehicle in the future?
  • Will existing safety features need to be modified to install the adaptive equipment?

While your vehicle is being modified, you will most likely need to be available for fittings. This prevents additional waiting time for adjustments once the equipment is fully installed. Without proper fittings you may have problems with the safe operation of the vehicle and have to go back for adjustments.

Obtain Training on the Use of New Equipment

Both new and experienced drivers need training on how to safely use newly installed adaptive equipment. Your equipment installer and driver rehabilitation specialist should provide information on the new devices and off-road instruction.

But literature and off-road instruction aren’t enough to equip you to drive safely with your new adaptive equipment. This equipment may be very complex. So it’s extremely important to obtain on-the-road training and practice with a driver rehabilitation specialist who has advanced expertise and knowledge of adaptive technologies. If your driver rehabilitation specialist does not offer such training, ask him or her for a referral or  inquire at your local driver licensing office.

State vocational rehabilitation departments and workers’ compensation will pay for driver education and training under certain circumstances. At a minimum, their staffs can help you locate a qualified driver rehabilitation specialist to provide training.

Finally, remember to enlist the help of a family member or friend to drive you to all the training sessions. (It is important to have someone else who can drive your vehicle in case of an emergency.)

Ensuring Safe Operation and Warranty Compliance

Regular maintenance is important for keeping your vehicle and specifically installed adaptive features safe and reliable. It may also be mandatory for compliance with the terms of your warranty. Some warranties specify a time period during which adaptive equipment must be inspected. These equipment check-up schedules may differ from those for your vehicle. Make sure you or your modifier submit all warranty cards for all equipment. This will not only ensure coverage, but will also enable manufacturers to contact you in case of a recall.

Vehicle Safety Checklist

Your vehicle warranty and owner’s manual will describe regularly required vehicle maintenance. Keep in mind that your adoptive equipment may need special attention or more frequent check-ups, than your vehicle alone. However, the following checklist represents basic maintenance that applies to all vehicles:

  • Check tire pressure at least once a month and always before a long road trip.
  • Change oil as recommended by your owner’s manual using the grade recommended.
  • Check all fluids when you change the oil, including power steering fluid, brake fluid, and engine coolant.
  • Routinely check headlights, break and parking lights, reverse lights, and turn signals.
  • Remember to keep your windows and headlights clean. You need to clearly see where you are going. Keeping the headlights clean will help other cars see you too.
  • Check for damage from road hazards by having your vehicle put on a service lift at least once a year.

Proper maintenance can keep your vehicle running smoothly, leaving you free to concentrate on the road and enjoy the freedom of driving. However, if you think you have a problem with your modified vehicle or adaptive equipment, file a complaint or get it checked out again before hitting the road.


Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

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