Getting back on the road

For those who are newly paralyzed, the thought of driving can be scary and exciting at the same time. Getting behind the wheel again can help restore your sense of independence and control.

Still, you may wonder how you can safely drive a car now. In fact, driving is quite possible for many people who are paralyzed, even those with very limited hand and arm function, thanks to the wide range of adaptive driving equipment and vehicle modifications on the market today.

The rules of the road don't change for disabled drivers, but the controls do. Depending on your specific needs, an adapted vehicle may include the following:

  • Hand controls for braking and accelerating
  • Power assist devices for easy steering
  • Touch-activated ignition pads and gear shifts
  • Adjustable driver's seats
  • Automatic door openers
  • Joysticks for people with extremely limited hand function
  • A spinner knob on the steering wheel for one-handed steering
  • A gas pedal placed on the left side if your right foot has limited function

Driving evaluation

The first step in the process is to get an evaluation from a qualified driving instructor. This will help determine the specific modifications and driving equipment that best match your needs.

The evaluation will assess your:

  • Vision
  • Muscle strength
  • Flexibility and range of motion
  • Hand-eye coordination and reaction time
  • Judgment and decision-making
  • Ability to handle adaptive equipment

An evaluator may also take into account any medications you are taking.

To find a qualified evaluator, visit your local rehabilitation center or contact the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (ADED), which maintains a list of certified specialists throughout the country.

As for getting a new driver's license, most states require a valid learner's permit or driver's license to receive an on-the-road evaluation. You cannot be denied the opportunity to apply for a permit or license because you have a disability, but you may receive a restricted license based on the adaptive devices you require.

Selecting a vehicle

Once you get the green light from the evaluator and your state's motor vehicle department, it's time to think about the type of vehicle that suits your abilities and needs.

In most cases, you’ll need a minivan or a full-size van to accommodate your wheelchair.

People who sit in their wheelchair while driving or riding in minivans or full-size vans need either a manual tie-down or power lockdowns for safety. With a manual system, you may require help getting in and out. Power units allow for more independence—you just roll into place and the chair automatically locks down.

Because there is no way a person can operate a van from a scooter, users must be able to transfer to the vehicle seat to drive. Electronic seats are available to help with the transfer.

Tips to find the car that fits your needs

Ask yourself the following questions before you start to shop for a vehicle:

  • Does the necessary adaptive equipment require a van or will a smaller passenger car do? If you can transfer into a car from your wheelchair, you’ll have more options.
  • Will you fit in the vehicle if you are sitting in your chair while driving? Sometimes people sit taller in the chair and may not clear the ceiling. In this case, you may need a full-size van (as opposed to a minivan).
  • Can the vehicle accommodate the hand controls or other needed driving equipment?
  • Will there be enough space to accommodate other passengers once the vehicle is modified?
  • Are there adequate parking spaces at home and at work for the vehicle and for loading/unloading a wheelchair or walker? Be aware that full-size vans might not fit in all garages (even public ones) or parking spaces.

Finding a car dealer??

It’s important to find a qualified dealer to modify your vehicle. Check their credentials and references.

Do they work with evaluators?

Will they examine your vehicle before you purchase it?

Do they require a prescription from a physician or other driver evaluation specialist?

Do they provide training on how to use the equipment?

Do they provide service? What is the cost? How long will it take to do the work? What is the warranty?

If you are adapting a used van or family vehicle, make sure the technician has lots of experience.

Financial considerations

The cost of modifying a vehicle varies greatly. A new vehicle modified with adaptive equipment can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000. However, you may qualify for financial assistance, so make sure to look into that before you plunk down any cash.

Contact your state's department of vocational rehabilitation or another agency that provides vocational services and, if appropriate, the Department of Veterans Affairs.

If you have private health insurance or workers' compensation, you may be covered for adaptive devices and vehicle modification. Check with your insurance carrier.

Some states waive the sales tax for adaptive devices if you have a doctor's prescription for their use. You may also be eligible for medical expense-related savings on your federal income tax return; a tax specialist can help you with this.

Make sure to get a written statement on what a funding agency has agreed to pay before making your purchase.

Finally, many vehicle companies offer a discount when you modify certain car models (see below).

Joystick motoring

The joystick has enabled individuals living with quadriplegia to hit the road. Joystick car systems have been around long enough to establish their safety, reliability, and performance.

You may face a choice between a mechanical/hydraulic system (like in an airplane) or an electronic system (like for a PlayStation). It may come down to your comfort level with electronics and any worries about a total power shutdown at 70 mph.

A California company called dSi custom fits its Scott mechanical system to each driver, and prefers to install them in large Ford vans. The firm says mechanical systems are more reliable and more refined than electronic systems. (The company stays in touch with drivers, including some with spinal cord injury up to C4/C5, who've logged more than 300,000 miles on the system.)

EMC offers an electronic solution called Aevit 2.0. A main advantage of this is that Aevit does not require modification of original equipment such as brakes, steering, and airbag assemblies. This means you can ultimately resell the vehicle without the modifications. Also, an Aevit system can be operated by a non-disabled driver. The Scott system, by contrast, is joystick only.

If you're thinking about going the joystick route, you can't get one without a referral from a driving instructor. Also, the importance of training cannot be overstated.

A joystick system will run upwards of $40,000 to $65,000, plus the cost of the van. Third parties, including private insurance, vocational rehab, and the VA, have paid for these modifications, so investigate your options. Additionally, ask each manufacturer for user references and if at all possible, check out each system yourself.

Vehicle discounts

Ford Mobility Motoring offers up to $1,000 of assistance toward the cost of adaptive equipment on a new Ford, Lincoln, or Mercury vehicle.

GM Mobility Program with OnStar offers up to $1,000 reimbursement ($1,200 on Chevy Express/GMC Savana vans) plus two extra years of the OnStar safety and security service on any eligible new GM vehicle (except Cadillac).

Toyota Mobility Program provides cash reimbursement of up to $1,000 toward aftermarket adaptive equipment or conversion installed on any eligible purchased or leased new Toyota.

The FCA Driveability program provides up to $1,000 in financial assistance toward the installation of adaptive equipment on new Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge vehicles.

Hyundai Mobility Program offers $1,000 toward the cost of adaptive equipment.

Volvo Mobility Program reimburses up to $1,000 toward the cost of adaptive equipment added to a new Volvo.

Resources

If you are looking for more information on adaptive vehicles or have a specific question, our Information Specialists are available Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to8:00 pm ET. Call toll-free at 800-539-7309.

Additionally, the Reeve Foundation maintains a fact sheet on driving with a disability. Check out our repository of fact sheets on hundreds of topics ranging from state resources to secondary complications of paralysis.

We also encourage you to reach out to organizations, including:

Accessible Vans of America (AVA ) rents and sells full-size and lowered floor minivans.

.National Highway Traffic and Transportation Safety Administration offers advice on driver training, vehicle selection, and vehicle modification. Search under “adaptive.”

National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) is a trade group of companies that sell adaptive driving equipment

Wheelers Accessible Van Rentals rents wheelchair and scooter accessible transportation by the day, week, month, and longer.


The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.