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Driving a car is something that many people take for granted — the ability to go wherever you want or need to go, whenever you need. For someone with a disability, though, transportation can be a challenge.
Public transportation is not always available, particularly if you live in suburban or rural areas where transit services may be very limited or non-existent. Even if you live in a place with good transit services, times and schedules are not always convenient.
Rideshare services (like Uber, Lyft, Via and others) do not necessarily offer accessible vehicles. These companies argued in a 2018 court case that they are technology companies, so the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility requirements do not apply. Since then, both Uber and Lyft have made an effort to improve accessibility ride options — Uber introduced UberWAV, UberASSIST and Uber ACCESS, and the Lyft app now has “access mode” — but these services are still only available in select cities.
Vehicle modifications provide transportation options for people with disabilities. They range from simple additions like a pedal extension to more extensive changes like adding an automatic wheelchair ramp or special seats. These modifications can be expensive and are not available on every vehicle.
Barry Banks, a 72-year-old in Utah, had his vehicle modified after a minor stroke during surgery left his right leg paralyzed.
“After the stroke, my wife of 50 years had to take me everywhere I needed to go and do everything I wanted to do. That’s when I started looking into vehicle modifications,” said Barry. He had a left foot pedal installed and is able to drive again.
What modifications can be made
As technology has advanced, so have the ways you can modify vehicles for disabilities. You can add:
Hand controls and steering devices
Adaptive ignition controls
Pedal or seat belt extenders
Wheelchair lifts and ramps
Raised roof or dropped floor
And many more options
Smaller vehicles, like economy or compact cars, may not have enough space for modifications. If you need a larger car, SUV or van, the cost of just the vehicle will already be higher.
Types of modifications and average cost
The cost of modifying a vehicle will vary depending on what you need. An important initial action item is finding a qualified driver rehabilitation specialist who can assess your needs. You can find a list of specialists in your area through:
A state or local rehabilitation services office (find links by state below)
You do have to pay for these assessments, but vocational rehabilitation agencies, health insurance or workers’ compensation insurance may cover some or all of the cost.
Next, look for a certified shop to help with vehicle modifications. They can provide recommendations, pricing and information about what modifications will work best for you.
“It’s very easy to find them, You look it up online and find a place where they are certified to do this,” said Banks. “[In occupational therapy] I tried to do the hand controls and it was difficult for me. You have to think really fast if you’re pushing or pulling, going or stopping. I decided to try the left foot pedal, and it was very easy and much safer for me.”
The vehicle modification shop gave him two options for installing the pedal. The first was a manual pedal installed on the left that hooks to the right pedal with a short extension. When he pushed the left pedal it controlled the right one. The second option was more expensive, because it hooks into the electronic system in the car, but that is the one Banks decided to get.
“I get in the car, there’s a button you push, and it automatically switches it over to the left gas pedal. So my wife can drive my car too. It’s wonderful. It has really opened up my life,” Banks shared.
If you plan to travel in your vehicle, it’s also important to note that the laws for using disability placards issued in another state vary by state. In general, most states allow you to use a placard from another state, but there may be restrictions. AccessibleGO has a state-by-state parking guide to help when planning a trip.
Auto insurance for adaptive vehicles
Like all drivers on the road, adaptive vehicle drivers must be insured. ADA anti-discrimination laws prevent insurance companies from charging higher rates based solely on the fact that you have a disability. All car insurance companies must offer insurance rates that are reasonable and fair, and it’s important to know your rights.
However, there are reasons someone with a disability may have to pay a higher monthly premium for automobile insurance. Companies may give you a higher quote for premiums if:
You have a certain medical condition with increased safety risk (such as epilepsy or stroke)
You have a vehicle with custom modifications that would increase vehicle replacement costs in the event of an accident
Adding extra coverage
When you own an adaptive vehicle, you may want to consider additional coverage, such as:
Higher collision or comprehensive coverage amounts to pay for the full cost of replacing a vehicle with interior or exterior modifications.
Mobility car insurance, which provides temporary transportation in an accessible vehicle if yours needs repairs.
Roadside assistance to help with things like flat tires or other vehicle breakdowns.
These additional coverages could increase the premiums for your insurance.
It’s important to tell an insurance company about any medical conditions or vehicle modifications that could impact your coverage. Not doing so could result in loss of coverage or an insurance company that refuses to pay after an accident.
Finding affordable coverage
To keep the cost of insurance affordable, ask about:
Low-mileage or usage-based discounts: These discounts can reduce your costs if you don’t drive long distances or do not drive often. Some require a small device installed in your vehicle to transmit information about your driving habits and total mileage to the insurance company.
Senior discounts: Many companies offer discounts for people who are 55 or older.
Bundling discounts: You can get lower rates if you bundle more than one coverage together, such as auto and homeowners insurance.
Safe driver discounts: Many companies offer safe driver discounts to people with no recent accidents that were your fault, and no recent moving violations (such as speeding tickets).
If you do not plan to drive the modified vehicle, you can also remove yourself from the policy as a driver, possibly lowering the cost of insurance.
How to pay for vehicle modifications
One of the biggest challenges for people who would like to get a modified vehicle is finding a way to pay for it. This can be especially difficult if you’re already budgeting for other medical expenses or necessary home modifications, in addition to car modifications.
There are several things you can look into for help covering some or all of the cost of your vehicle modifications:
Auto insurance policies may pay for some or all of your adaptive equipment if you need it after being involved in a motor vehicle crash.
Workers’compensation insurance policies usually cover adaptive equipment that is necessary after a work-related injury.
Medicare will pay for adaptive equipment in some situations. Contact the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) at 1-800-MEDICARE to find out if you are eligible.
Vehicle manufacturer rebates are available from some manufacturers if you purchase a newer vehicle (usually less than one year old). If you work with a dealer who is part of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA), they can usually help you find out what’s available and apply.
Special financing programs with extended loan terms, lease packages and other options can make adaptive vehicle payments more affordable. An NMEDA dealer can help you discover what options are available.
Sales tax waivers are available in many states for adaptive devices.
Tax deductions are available for some adaptive equipment. A tax consultant can help you identify which modifications qualify for these deductions.
Nonprofit organizations in some local areas offer grants and other assistance for adaptive equipment and vehicle modifications.
Many states and local governments offer grants or other programs to help people with disabilities pay for vehicle modifications through vocational rehabilitation services, disability services or aging services. Available resources and programs vary by state and local area. Find information about which public and private organizations provide resources in your state below.
Vehicle modifications are a great option for people who want or need the independence that driving can provide. Before you buy a modified vehicle, it’s a good idea to talk to a certified adaptive driving specialist or a dealer that is part of the NMEDA to determine exactly what vehicle and what modifications will best meet your needs.
It’s also imperative to find out in advance what the costs will be, including:
Costs to purchase a vehicle with modifications or to modify an existing vehicle
Automobile insurance costs
Additional costs to accommodate an adaptive vehicle, such as home modifications to be able to park the car in your garage or driveway
These costs can add up, but fortunately there are federal, state and local government programs, as well as charitable organizations and other resources, that can help alleviate some of these costs.
“There were two things I wanted to be able to do after my stroke. One was to drive, the other was to go bowling,” said Banks. “Well, I’m not going to be able to go bowling, but I can drive. The biggest benefit of car modifications is that a person who has a disability gets their freedom back. I can pick up my grandkids at school and take them home. I can go to the grocery store, the pharmacy and the gym on my own. It really helped my attitude after the stroke.”