Jennifer Woelke grew up assuming every vehicle could operate with hand controls. Because both of her parents were stricken with polio in the ‘40s, she became accustomed to riding in a car that didn’t require foot pedals, and even learned to drive in their adapted vehicle.
“I never knew there was a difference,” she said. “My parents’ handicap never held them back from doing anything, and driving is just one more way they were able to maintain their independence.”
But while hand controls allowed her parents to get around on their own, it wasn’t always easy once they got to their destination. Often, they had to walk with crutches or ask for help pulling a wheelchair out of the trunk. Fortunately, as new adaptive accessories became available over the years, the couple was able to purchase vehicles with wheelchair ramps, swivel seats, and other bells and whistles customized to meet their needs. And into their retirement years, they continued to take advantage of upgrades that allowed them to travel, attend grandchildren’s sporting events, and enjoy their overall freedom.
Woelke’s parents’ story is proof that a lifelong handicap doesn’t have to hold you back, but it’s also inspiring for any senior who has recently become disabled. If your loved one is dealing with paralysis, amputation or another condition that inhibits them from operating a traditional vehicle, it may be comforting for them to know it’s still possible to enjoy the freedom of driving.
Here are some considerations when getting them back behind the wheel in a vehicle that can meet their needs.
Is it safe for my loved one to operate a vehicle?
While many advances in adaptive technology can accommodate various handicaps, driving requires sharp cognitive skills, quick reaction times, and adequate vision to operate a vehicle safely. If your loved one has had a stroke that led to paralysis or has another condition that could inhibit these requirements, it’s important to have them evaluated by a Driver Rehabilitation Specialist. The specialist will test their physical function, vision, perception, attention, motor function and reaction time to determine what type of adaptive driving equipment is needed, as well as whether they have the ability to drive independently. Referrals to a driver rehabilitation program can be made by physicians, occupational therapists, driving schools, gerontologists, spouses or the individuals themselves. Find someone to evaluate your loved one through The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists.
What options are available for adapting a vehicle, and where can I get them done?
In order to ensure a vehicle is safe and appropriately converted, it’s important that any conversions are made by knowledgeable experts in the field. The National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) recommends that customers only purchase new adaptive vehicles or have their vehicles adapted by QAP-accredited businesses (Quality Assurance Program). These businesses are quality-controlled, have professionally trained employees, and must meet stringent requirements to maintain accreditation. Once you find a trusted mobility transportation business in your area, you should be able to find a solution to meet your loved one’s unique needs, and build a relationship in which you can depend on them for future maintenance and upgrades.
Dale Helton, a mobility specialist at Southern Bus and Mobility in Valley Park, Missouri, said maintaining relationships is essential for customers to get the most out of their mobility vehicle.
“As seniors with disabilities age, so do their needs,” he said. “They may start out being able to ride a scooter into their van, then transfer to the driver’s seat. As years progress, they may no longer be able to transfer, which means they will need to enter the vehicle in a wheelchair and stay in that wheelchair to drive. We check in with our customers all the time to make sure they’re still getting what they need in order to enjoy an independent life.”
Some of the options available from a mobility equipment dealer include:
- Adding hand controls for driving
- Adding adjustable foot pedals
- Lowering the floor to accommodate space for a wheelchair while maintaining ample headroom (usually needs to be about 57 inches vertically)
- Removing middle seats if you plan on adding a wheelchair ramp from the side door, or removing back seats if you plan on adding a wheelchair ramp from the rear
- Adding wheelchair tracking and docking to lock a wheelchair in the driver position, co-pilot position, or in the center of the van.
- Adding either a swiveling transfer seat in the driver’s position to allow for transferring from a wheelchair, or adding a rotating seat lift to allow the driver to access the driver’s seat directly from outside the driver’s door
- Adding either a manual or power wheelchair ramp
- Adding a powerlift device for a scooter or powerchair, which lifts it into the vehicle or stores it on an outdoor platform so it’s ready for use at the next destination
Financial considerations for purchasing an adapted vehicle
Brand new wheelchair-accessible or adapted vehicles can be expensive, so most dealerships offer financing, and some manufacturers offer rebates. Some state-funded grants and non-profit organizations are also available that offer financial assistance for purchasing a handicap vehicle.
For a more affordable option, consider searching for a pre-owned mobility van that can be customized to accommodate your loved one’s exact needs. Just make sure to shop at a QAP-accredited NMEDA dealer who can provide you with a vehicle that’s been professionally built and maintained.
Disability doesn’t have to take away independence
It’s never easy to deal with a life-changing handicap. Thankfully, adaptive vehicles can soften the blow by allowing your loved one to maintain some of their freedom. Woehlke said for her parents, that was instrumental in how they were able to enjoy life.
“They never took no for an answer,” she said. “And not being able to drive was no exception. It allowed them to live a long happy life and make lots of wonderful memories.”