Helping Everyone From Students to Seniors Navigate Driving With a Disability
From Vehicle Modifications to Car Insurance
Michael F. Barry
If you live with a disability (roughly one in four adults in the U.S., according to the CDC), finding reliable transportation and the right insurance can be a hassle. Fortunately, technological advances have opened the door for many people with disabilities to safely drive a car, and there are more and more options for those who need alternative transportation. Read on to find out how to customize your car to accommodate a disability, what kind of auto insurance you may need and how to access transportation if you're unable to drive.
Getting Vehicle Modifications and Assistive Technology
For some drivers with disabilities, outfitting a vehicle with assistive technology is a vital step toward mobility. Car modifications can be relatively minor or very extensive. By shopping around and investigating funding resources, you can find the best price.
Modifying a Vehicle: Average Costs
Vehicle modification costs vary widely. A simple addition like a pedal extender may cost less than $100, while a comprehensive conversion can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. A new vehicle with adapted technology can cost between $20,000 and $80,000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
According to David Hubbard, CEO of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA), here are some typical cost estimates for common vehicle modifications:
Emergency brake extension
This is for drivers with paralysis, spinal cord injuries or other conditions that make reaching for a brake difficult or impossible
This is a good option for people of short stature or people who have lost limbs
This assistive device improves steering dexterity for drivers who have lost fingers or an arm
Manual wheelchair ramp
This option features a removable ramp to guide a wheelchair into a van or pickup truck, or up short inclines like a curb or porch
Left foot accelerator
This is a good option for drivers with missing limbs or paralysis
Mechanical hand control
This offers assistive help for drivers with missing limbs or paralysis
A power-operated platform that can lift a wheelchair or scooter into a van
This helps a person transfer from a wheelchair to the driver's seat
Raised roof/door opening
This is an added roof/door opening that raises for a wheelchair-accessible van
Reduced-effort brakes or steering
This feature reduces the effort needed to brake or steer effectively
Automatic wheelchair ramp
This is a more comprehensive conversion package to make a vehicle wheelchair-accessible by adding in an automatic ramp and lowered floor conversion with removable seats
In addition to price, it's important to have the work done by a professional. NMEDA is an excellent resource to find assistive modifications and special vehicles for drivers with disabilities. Working with NMEDA or another organization with vehicle conversion standards also helps ensure the parts will be installed correctly. Ask about the technicians' training and experience before allowing them to work on your car. If possible, find a shop that will also perform services to repair and maintain assistive technology once they install it.
Where to Get Financial Help
Whether you're planning to modify a vehicle you own or purchase a new vehicle with assistive technology, you may need financial assistance. Fortunately, there are several organizations that can help finance the modifications you need.
Department of Veterans Affairs: Veterans can contact their local Department of Veterans Affairs for guidance and assistance. Ask about insurance providers that offer discounts for veterans, and request an application for adaptive equipment for your vehicle.
Plan to Achieve Self Support (PASS): This Social Security Administration program helps people with disabilities save money to buy the equipment they need to return to work.
Medical Tax Deduction: Assistive devices and technology may qualify for a tax deduction. Bring any receipts and a note from your doctor to your next appointment with your accountant.
Manufacturer Rebate Programs: Several auto manufacturers offer a rebate toward the cost of modifications for drivers with disabilities. Buick, Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Honda and many others offer reimbursement, often for up to $1,000.
Finding the Right Car Insurance Coverage
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage or charging higher rates to licensed drivers solely because they have a disability. But if you require vehicle modifications to drive safely, you may need additional insurance coverage. Learn how car insurance works, how a disability may affect your coverage, what to look for when comparing car insurance quotes and why some car insurance companies are cheaper than others.
Car Insurance in Your State
How a Medical Condition or Disability Can Affect Your Auto Insurance
In most cases, a disability should have little to no bearing on a driver's insurance application, according to Michael Barry, Vice President of Media Relations at the Insurance Information Institute (III). The insurer is just "looking to see if they're a licensed driver, as opposed to a licensed disabled driver," he explains. Unless the driver's disability is listed on his or her license, it may not enter into the conversation at all unless the driver chooses to disclose it.
There are two situations in which your disability may factor into your insurance premium:
Medical conditions like epilepsy, heart conditions or uncontrolled diabetes may make you a higher risk in the eyes of an insurance provider. In these cases, you may be asked to provide information about your last episode and periodic medical evaluations from your doctor to the DMV.
NHTSA has issued Driver Fitness Medical Guidelines to advise state DMV offices on how to evaluate drivers with disabilities or medical conditions. Ultimately, each state sets its own guidelines, but most will assess a variety of conditions and disabilities, including:
- Vision problems (visual acuity of 20/200 or less and/or limited field of vision of 20 degrees or less)
- Physical impairments (loss or paralysis of a limb, inability to walk, need for a wheelchair)
- Medical conditions (Class III or Class IV heart condition, dementia, sleep apnea, uncontrolled diabetes, seizures)
- Temporary medical conditions (injury, for example)
Depending on the nature of your disability, you may receive a restricted license. For example, if your vision is barely at the legal standard, you may be restricted to driving only in the daytime. Or if you're unable to use your right arm, you may be restricted to driving a car with automatic transmission.
It's important to disclose your disability to both the DMV and your insurer. If you don't disclose a disability that leads to an accident, you could risk having your policy dropped by your insurer. In some cases, the insurer may even accuse you of committing fraud by misrepresenting yourself in your application for coverage. "I could see a situation where a driver who lied on an application and got into an accident based on this misrepresentation may have their policy canceled," says Barry. "But what would be a more likely scenario is when the policy came up for renewal, the auto insurer would choose not to renew with that motorist."
It's important to note the difference between cancellation and nonrenewal of a policy. Barry explains that an insurance company may only cancel a policy if the policyholder fails to pay premiums, commits fraud or has his or her license revoked or suspended. Nonrenewal, on the other hand, can be due to a driver's risky behavior or simply because the company has decided to write fewer policies in a certain geographic area. An insurance company must give notice and provide a reason before dropping a policy.
You'll likely pay a higher premium for collision and comprehensive insurance on a car that has been modified with expensive adaptive technologies. "The auto insurer is looking at what it's going to cost to repair this vehicle in the case of a collision, a flood or if a tree hits it," Barry explains. So the higher cost reflects a higher cost to replace your vehicle if there is a problem.
Generally, modifications to accommodate your disability shouldn't impact your liability rates. However, some car insurance companies associate car modifications with street racing and therefore do charge more for liability coverage, according to Disabled World. There isn't currently a legal distinction between these modifications and those that accommodate disabilities, so auto insurers are not obligated to treat them differently. Be sure to explain the rationale for your modifications to your insurer.
Additional Car Insurance Coverage You May Need
If you've invested in modifications to your vehicle or need to carry expensive equipment such as a wheelchair, you may need additional insurance to ensure that these items are covered. Additional coverage may include:
Adaptation Coverage: Special protection for costly modifications to a vehicle.
Equipment Insurance: Coverage for equipment that is not part of the vehicle, like wheelchairs or prosthetic limbs. An auto insurance company may offer coverage for these and other forms of medical equipment, or your health insurance plan may cover it.
It's important to disclose vehicle modifications to your insurance company and have any new adaptive technology properly installed by a professional. Failing to do so may affect your rates and renewal.
Know Your Rights: How to Prevent Discrimination
Although the ADA prohibits automobile insurance companies from charging a higher premium or denying coverage purely on the basis of disability, some drivers may still face discrimination. Unfortunately, this can be difficult to prove.
"The auto insurer is not under an obligation to issue a policy to somebody," says Barry. The insurance company can refuse to issue a policy for any number of reasons, including reckless driving behavior or other factors that make a driver high-risk. Still, if a driver with a disability has a clean driving record and is denied by multiple insurers, it's a red flag.
Other warning signs for discrimination could include pressure to sign up for unwanted or unnecessary coverage, or unwarranted comments about a disability or medical condition. An insurance company may legally underwrite your application based on risks incurred by having a particular disability, but may not institute a blanket policy to hike rates for drivers with disabilities.
If you suspect discrimination, you can take one or more of the following steps:
File a complaint
Contact the U.S. Department of Justice to start the formal process to file an ADA complaint.
Contact your insurance commissioner
File a complaint with your state's Insurance Commissioner. You can find out who to contact in your state by looking at the map of NAIC states and jurisdictions on the National Association of Insurance Commissioners website.
Report to insurance company's main office
If you suspect the problem lies with a particular agent or office in an otherwise reputable insurance company, you can report your experience to the company's corporate office.
In the meantime, Barry says, a driver should not have to go uninsured. As a last resort, drivers can turn to their state's assigned risk pool. This is typically a resource for people with multiple accidents, DUI charges or other risk factors that have edged them out of the private insurance market. It's usually more expensive, but can serve as a stopgap until you can find less expensive coverage.
Transportation Assistance for People With Disabilities
For those people who are unable to drive because of their disability, there is a growing number of transportation options available.
Public Transportation: It is often quite affordable and widely available. Even in some suburban areas, public transportation like buses, trains and subways may be an option. Check out the ADA's requirements concerning bus stop passenger loading areas and accessible pathways between bus shelters and the vehicle.
Door-to-Door Transport Services: This service option may be available depending on where you live. Transportation services, like Paratransit in San Francisco, are specifically for people with disabilities.
Traditional Taxis: Taxi companies can't discriminate against individuals with disabilities by refusing to give them a ride, according to the ADA; however, you will likely need to call ahead to ensure you get one that accommodates any equipment you may need to bring with you, like a wheelchair.
Ridesharing Companies: Companies such as Uber and Lyft can also make a huge difference for people with disabilities since they can request a ride from their home when they need it. In recent years, Uber has also launched UberACCESS and UberASSIST in cities across the country. These services offer rides from drivers who are trained in accessibility needs and can accommodate wheelchairs. Another program, UberWAV, features trained drivers who have a wheelchair ramp or hydraulic lift on their vehicles.
License in Question? Try a Driver Rehabilitation Program
If you have recently been disabled or diagnosed with a medical condition that puts into question your ability to drive safely, you may want to consider a driver rehabilitation program. These programs evaluate a person's physical and mental ability to drive safely. The loss of a limb, an Alzheimer's diagnosis or a spinal injury, for example, may be a reason to seek out a driver rehabilitation program.
The evaluation is commonly performed by an occupational therapist who will offer recommendations based on an assessment of the driver's capabilities. Following the evaluation, a therapist may recommend that a driver no longer drive, take a training course or continue to operate a car with no further intervention.
The occupational therapist's goal is to help people attain and maintain as much independence as possible while also being safe. If the driver and therapist agree that the driver should no longer hold a license, the therapist should be able to help the driver develop a plan to keep the driver as mobile as possible. The therapist's findings are just recommendations, and are not reported to the DMV without the driver's written consent. Drivers, however, must report any medical condition that could impede their ability to drive safely.
If you've recently been diagnosed with a medical condition, or have a referral from your doctor, your health insurance may cover the cost of a driver rehabilitation program. Your doctor may also be able to recommend a driver rehabilitation program, or you can find one through The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists.
Resources for People With Disabilities
Car ownership programs for low-income earners: Look up a car program in your area to loan or purchase a car. This can be used for students, seniors and veterans who are low-wage earners. You'll need to contact the program directly to see if you qualify.
The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists: Use the ADED search tool to find a certified criver rehabilitation specialist (CDRS) who specializes in working with students.
BraunAbility: This organization provides mobility solutions to change the lives of people with physical disabilities. You can find a list of handicap van funding and disability grants for vehicles in the U.S. through its website.
Your college's Disabled Student Services (DSS): The Disabled Student Services (DSS) office at your college can be a good resource to learn about mobility services in your area.
AAA: The American Automobile Association (AAA) offers local defensive driving courses for seniors. Drivers who successfully complete a defensive driving course may be eligible for insurance premium discounts.
AARP: The AARP provides driver safety resources and a list of defensive driving courses for seniors.
National Aging and Disability Transportation Center (NADTC): The NADTC works with seniors, individuals with disabilities and caregivers to increase their transportation options so they can live independently in their homes.
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA): The AOTA provides resources specific to older drivers who may need assistance to continue driving safely.
Armed Forces Insurance (AFI): The AFI specializes in insurance for active duty, retired and honorably discharged members of the military.
Department of Veterans Affairs: Veterans with service-related disabilities may be eligible for a one-time grant toward the purchase of an accessible vehicle.
Paralyzed Veterans of America: Among other services, this organization directs veterans to accessibility and mobility resources.
United Services Automobile Association (USAA): The USAA works with Disabled American Veterans (DAV) to provide affordable car insurance.
About the Author
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). "Settlement Agreement Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 Between the United States of America and Golden Cab Corporation." Accessed January 25, 2021.
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). "Title 42 - The Public Health and Welfare: Chapter 126 - Equal Opportunity for Individuals With Disabilities." Accessed January 25, 2021.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Disability Impacts All of Us." Accessed January 25, 2021.
- Disabled World. "Vehicle Insurance and Mobility Adapted Vehicles." Accessed January 25, 2021.
- Insurance Information Institute. "Facts + Statistics: Auto insurance." Accessed January 25, 2021.
- Insurance Information Institute. "What's the difference between auto policy cancellation and nonrenewal." Accessed January 25, 2021.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Adapted Vehicles." Accessed January 25, 2021.