Cars & Driving

Driving a car can become a reality for many people who are paralyzed, even people with very limited hand and arm function. There is a wide range of driving equipment and vehicle modifications on the market today.

The first step in the process of learning to drive with paralysis is to get a thorough evaluation from a qualified driver trainer to determine your basic driving set-up, specific modifications, and driving equipment. An evaluation includes vision screening and assesses muscle strength, flexibility and range of motion; coordination and reaction time; judgment and decision making; and ability to drive with adaptive equipment.

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

As for getting a driver’s license, 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 use of adaptive devices.

Once you get the go-ahead from the evaluation, it’s time to think about the kinds of vehicles that suit your abilities and needs. Selecting a vehicle for modification requires collaboration with the evaluator and a qualified vehicle modification dealer. The following questions can help with vehicle selection and whether you can adapt a car you already own.

  • Does the necessary adaptive equipment require a van, or will a passenger car suffice (will you be driving from a wheelchair or can you transfer to the car seat? If you can transfer in and drive a car your choices are much wider.
  • Can the vehicle accommodate the equipment that needs to be installed?
  • Will there be enough space to accommodate 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 or walker?

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.

The cost of modifying a vehicle varies greatly. A new vehicle modified with adaptive equipment can cost from $20,000 to $80,000. Therefore, it pays to investigate public and private opportunities for financial assistance.

There are programs that help pay part or all of the cost of vehicle modification, depending on the cause and nature of the disability. Contact your state’s department of Vocational Rehabilitation or another agency that provides vocational services, and, if appropriate, the Department of Veterans Affairs. Also, consider the following:

  • Many nonprofit associations that advocate for individuals with disabilities have grant programs that help pay for adaptive devices.
  • If you have private health insurance or workers’ compensation, you may be covered for adaptive devices and vehicle modification. Check with your insurance carrier.
  • Many manufacturers have rebate or reimbursement plans for modified vehicles.
  • Some states waive the sales tax for adaptive devices if you have a doctor’s prescription for their use.

You may be eligible for savings when submitting your federal income tax return. Check with a qualified tax consultant to find out if the cost of your adaptive devices will help you qualify for a medical deduction.

Find a qualified dealer to modify your vehicle. Ask questions, check credentials and references. Do they work with evaluators? Will they look at 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?

Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation, Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists