Driving can be a way to gain independence. But you’ll need a vehicle that helps you get around efficiently. Vehicle modification and assistive technology can help drivers with disabilities. Figuring out what types of modifications you might need, navigating auto insurance and understanding the laws governing discrimination are important issues. Learn more about the right modifications for you, the costs, what you’ll need in your auto insurance coverage, and your rights as a person with a disability before you start driving.
Steps to Modifying Your Vehicle and Assistive Technology
Many vehicles can be modified to suit your needs. Before you make an investment, you should consider how to approach the modification process.
Think about what you’ll need to make your driving experience accessible and comfortable. Ask yourself these key questions: what type of assistance do you need? Do you have a general idea of how much you have available to spend? Is a new, used or existing vehicle right for you?
Assessing Your Needs
Start the vehicle modification process with an assessment of what modifications you’ll need to drive safely. There are several types of disabilities. People with physical disabilities may require more modifications to a vehicle. Those driving with neurological disabilities may need little to no modification and could use the assistive technology that vehicles are equipped with. Your modification needs depend on what will allow you to travel safely to your destination.
Professionals, such as occupational therapists or driving evaluators, can help you determine what type of vehicle you’ll need and how it should be modified. Qualified dealers can help you get the right equipment for the modification process.
Check the law in your state
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. This rule applies to the Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which cannot deny drivers’ licenses to people with disabilities. Each state has its own regulations for drivers with a disability, such as which disabilities require restricted licenses and what rules govern vehicle modification. Make sure you know which rules apply to you.
Find a qualified professional to conduct an assessment
Physical or occupational therapists or assistive technology specialists can evaluate your needs. The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, known as ADED, provides a database of Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialists.
Choose the right type of vehicle
Keep in mind that while many vehicles can be modified, some vehicles can’t be modified to meet the needs of drivers with disabilities. Some drivers with disabilities share their car with caregivers or family members. Consider whether you will be sharing your car or you will be the primary driver.
Many newer cars have driver-assistance features and systems, such as lane change detection, rearview mirror backup camera and voice activation guidance, that may be included in the price of the car.
Think about your budget, preferences and needs before proceeding with modifications.
Find a qualified dealer
You will need to find a dealer who is specifically qualified to sell modified vehicles. Check the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) to see which dealers are located near you.
Learn how to use your equipment and be comfortable with your vehicle
If you get modifications done, you’ll need to learn how to operate your new modified vehicle efficiently and safely. You’ll most likely have to pass a driving test, and to do so, you’ll need to complete a certain number of required driving hours. A driver’s license with restrictions may be issued based on your need for adaptive equipment.
Evaluating the Average Costs of Vehicle Modification
Vehicle modification costs can vary widely. Adding an emergency brake extender, for example, might cost less than $50. Another example is adding a ramp to a vehicle, which can cost people thousands of dollars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that a new vehicle modified for a driver with disabilities can cost between $20,000 to $80,000 on average.
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 disabilities that make reaching for the 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.
This option features a removable ramp to guide a wheelchair, power chair, scooter or other mobility equipment 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.
Mobility vehicle lift
A mobility vehicle lift is a power-operated platform that can lift a wheelchair, power chair, scooter or other mobility equipment into a van.
Transfer seats help a person move from a wheelchair, power chair or scooter to the driver's seat.
Raised roof or door opening
This added roof or door opening allows for extra space and gives drivers more mobility to quickly move in and out of the vehicle.
Reduced-effort brakes or steering
This feature reduces the effort needed to brake or steer effectively.
This is a more comprehensive conversion package to equip a vehicle with an automatic ramp and a lowered floor with removable seats.
Deciding on the Right Vehicle
Not every vehicle can be modified to accommodate a driver with disabilities. A vehicle should meet your own needs, preferences and budget. Choosing the best vehicle to modify will also depend on official requirements set forth by your state’s Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Consult with a driver rehabilitation specialist to help you find the right vehicle and make sure it passes the requirements. You can search the American Occupational Therapy Association’s database to find a specialist near you.
How to Find the Best Vehicles for Modification
Adaptive equipment usually requires a professional to install. Typically, you are going to want a vehicle that has an automatic transmission with plenty of interior space, good safety, reliability and the ability to adjust seats, steering wheels and controls.
You may also consider who else will use your vehicle, such as other family members or caregivers. If you plan to share your car, you may look into easily adjustable modifications.
In addition, cars today have some safety or driver-assistance features — such as voice activation guidance or voice recognition, lane change detection and rearview mirror backup camera — that can help you. Check with the dealer about what features are available, so you don’t need to spend extra money on similar modifications.
Below is a sample of vehicle types and models that may work well for common modifications.
Dodge Caravan or Grand Caravan
Dodge minivans are solidly utilitarian and comfortable to drive, with many conversion options, including rear and side-entry doors and extra-tall heights. It’s compatible with several types of ramps and driver controls.
These minivans can be modified with a side-door entry, floors that can be lowered and non-slip mobility ramps.
The Hyundai Sonata is one of few sedans that can support drivers with disabilities. It has technology to enable emergency calls if need be, and it’s not too expensive.
Subarus tend to be popular with all types of drivers. The Forrester can be modified relatively easily without changing the car too much.
This sports car can be outfitted with equipment, such as lifts, hand controls and power assist brakes.
Finding a Qualified Dealer
When choosing a dealer, some questions to consider include:
- Is the dealer registered with the NHTSA?
- Is the dealer a member of NMEDA?
- What kind of training does the staff receive?
- Will the dealer stand behind their work with a warranty and ongoing service?
- How much will modifications cost?
- How long will they take?
- How long will the modification last?
- What type of maintenance is needed?
Financing Your Vehicle Modifications
Vehicle modifications can be expensive, depending on your needs. Fortunately, a variety of government programs and nonprofits provide assistance to make vehicles more suitable for individuals with disabilities. Workers’ compensation may also help you cover part or all of the cost, in addition to tax exemption benefits and reimbursement programs. If you’re planning to have vehicle modifications or purchase a car with assistive technology, do your research.
Financial Support and Assistance
You can find financial support to help with modification costs. Check for local and national government financial assistance programs for people with disabilities, and ask around for organizations that provide financial help for vehicle modification.
Government Programs: Where to Find Help
Various local projects offer grants to people with disabilities who are eligible. Check out the map below and click or tap on your state to see available programs near you.
Nonprofit Assistance Organizations
If you’re looking for financial assistance, consider looking at nonprofits. Some organizations offer full payment, while others cover part of necessary expenses. Grants may vary depending on several factors, such as your income, physical needs, whether your insurance policy covers modifications and how much adaptive technology is necessary. To learn more, contact the state government office that handles services for persons with disabilities in your state. The following resources can also help you get started:
- Help Hope Live: A nonprofit organization that helps individuals raise funds to cover expenses not covered by insurance. In the past, the organization has helped with unmet medical expenses related to cell and organ transplants or catastrophic injuries and illnesses.
- I GOT LEGS Foundation: Founded in 2016, I GOT LEGS Foundation is dedicated to reenabling athletes who are paralyzed to walk again. The nonprofit foundation also aims to provide funds to people with disabilities so they can buy necessary technology or equipment, including those for vehicle modification.
- SpecialKidsFund.org: This organization provides donated adapted vehicles to those in need and is best known for its wheelchair van assistance program. It currently processes requests for children and adults nationwide.
- The Mobility Resource: The Mobility Resource is a network that offers grants to people with disabilities who need funds to finance an assistive vehicle. It can also connect you to the nearest dealer of wheelchair vans and adaptive driving equipment.
- MobilityWorks: MobilityWorks will help you locate disability assistance and grants and other resources in your area, particularly disability assistance programs offered by government and nonprofit organizations.
Tax Exemption Benefits
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offers special assistance to persons with disabilities. These include tax deductions, credits and income inclusions. Check the IRS Tax Benefits and Credits guide to learn more, and if you qualify, fill out the appropriate form and file it with the IRS. Many states have different laws, but most waive sales tax if you can show a doctor’s prescription.
Some vehicle manufacturing companies offer reimbursement programs for vehicles that require modifications to suit the needs of people with disabilities. Certain automakers also offer rebates for people buying adaptive equipment, usually up to $1,000, provided you purchase a vehicle less than a year old. You can find specific programs and requirements on company websites, or you can talk to their representatives to learn more. Here are some resources which offer lists and links for vehicle reimbursement programs and rebates:
- My Mobility Store: My Mobility Store is a mobility van dealer offering new and used mobility vans and other equipment. Customers can benefit from its list of vehicle reimbursement programs from different car companies.
- MPS Driving AIDS: This company offers mechanical and electronic driving aids for drivers with disabilities. It has also compiled a list of rebate programs from different companies.
- Adaptive Driving Alliance: The Alliance is made up of vehicle modification dealers providing adaptive technology and equipment to senior citizens and drivers. The group has also created a list of manufacturers offering rebates.
- National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association: Members are familiar with vehicle manufacturer rebates and can help you apply as well as give pre-purchase advice about the type of vehicle that will accommodate your adaptive equipment needs.
Auto loans can help you cover the cost of vehicle modifications for those who are disabled or have children with disabilities. There are various programs that provide auto loans for modified vehicles, such as the Bank of America and Digital Federal Credit Union (DCU) (for members and those from participating communities, organizations and employers). You can also check local organizations that may offer financing.
Finding ways to save money can help you finance necessary vehicle modifications. For affordable car insurance, ask insurers if they offer discounts. Usually, insurance companies have discount opportunities for safe drivers, those who have finished a defensive driving course and military members. Here are a few options to help with your modification costs:
- Plan to Achieve Self Support (PASS): This program offered under the Social Security Administration helps people with disabilities save money so that they can buy the equipment necessary for them to get back to work.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: The agency provides information to help veterans who need vehicle modifications. It can also connect them with insurance companies that offer discounts.
- DriveAbility Program: This program offers reimbursements and financing for qualified vehicle modifications. You can also use its list of resources to find available money-saving opportunities.
Navigating Auto Insurance
While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensures that no company can refuse to sell coverage or charge higher premium rates to drivers with disabilities, vehicle modifications can impact the cost of your auto insurance. Some insurers charge more, even if modifications are necessary due to a disability, because such vehicles are considered to have a higher value than non-modified cars. The car insurance you need should be based on your needs and circumstances as a driver. Some drivers may need additional coverage.
Other Insurance Coverage Options
Having additional insurance coverage can help protect you against the expense of carrying or installing extra equipment. Insurance providers may increase coverage prices if you have restricted vision, physical impairments or temporary or severe medical conditions. Many providers look to make sure you are a safe driver and can drive safely. Making the necessary improvements to your vehicle can show this to insurers. Failing to disclose vehicle modifications to your insurance company may affect your rates and renewal.
- Adaption Coverage: Adaption coverage offers special protection for costly vehicle modifications.
- Equipment Insurance: Equipment insurance covers equipment that is not part of your car, such as prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs. Your health insurance plan may cover these and other forms of medical equipment.
- Mobility Insurance: Mobility insurance reimburses the cost of temporary transportation if your modified vehicle is being repaired after an accident.
- Personal Injury Protection (PIP): If your state does not require PIP, consider having it to protect yourself against possible medical expenses after an accident.
Know Your Rights: Identifying Discrimination and Self-Advocate
Discrimination due to disabilities and medical conditions is prohibited, as stated in the ADA. That means auto insurance providers cannot deny selling you a policy because of your disability or medical diagnosis. They’re also not allowed to charge higher premium rates due to a disability. However, some drivers will inevitably face discrimination, and it’s important to identify it and report it.
File an ADA complaint
If you believe you have been discriminated against because of your race, color or national origin, including limited English proficiency, you should contact the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section and submit a completed Civil Rights Division Complaint Form.
Get legal help
Consult a lawyer about the next steps you can take. You can contact organizations like the Disability Rights Legal Center, which provides free legal assistance to people with disabilities experiencing discrimination in violation of their civil rights.
File a complaint with your state’s insurance commissioner
Find your state’s Insurance Commissioner on the National Association of Insurance Commissioners website and see how you can file a complaint. Usually, you will have to include your policy number and claim information.
Contact the main office of the insurance company
If you are having a problem with a particular insurance office or agent, consider reporting discrimination to the company’s main office.
Safe Driving With Your Adapted Vehicle
An adapted vehicle can help make driving safer for people with disabilities. However, it’s vital to drive safely to prevent auto accidents and learn how to use any new technology. Always check your vehicle before going on a trip, make sure you’re up to date with your vehicle maintenance and learn the rules of the road, as well as state and federal traffic laws.
Adaptive Driver Training
A modified vehicle may require specialty know-how compared to standard cars. A variety of courses, driving schools and rehabilitation programs, and training can give you a better idea of what’s involved. Topics covered may include driving with controls, driver positioning, transfer seats and reduced effort braking systems. Many driving instructors are unfamiliar with the needs of the disability community, so it’s important to take a course with someone who knows about driving with a disability. Below are a few options to get started:
- State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or a Similar Agency: Check with your state’s DMV to learn about any adaptive driving training requirements and see which organizations qualify to offer such programs.
- Center for Assistive Technology: The UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh, created the Center for Assistive Technology. The Center offers an Adaptive Driving Program for people with various disabilities and medical diagnoses.
- American Safety Council: The safety council offers drivers education and defensive driving programs to various drivers. Classes are offered online and you can attend via a phone, tablet or computer.
Driving Safety Tips
Adapted vehicles are personalized based on specific needs, and modifications will vary depending on one’s disability. For instance, drivers with visual impairments may have different needs than those with neurological disabilities.
Safety tips can vary accordingly, but some advice is universally good to follow:
- Practice using your adaptive equipment.
- Reduce distractions.
- Take any necessary medications.
- Follow the rules of the road.
Here are a couple of resources can offer you additional assistance.
- University of Iowa Health Care: This site offers information about driving with visual impairment. It also provides data on visual acuity standards for driving in seven states.
- HandicapDriverTraining.com: Serving all of Southern California, this training course offers a complete reassessment of driving skills, so clients and their families can be assured they are driving safely.
Vehicle Maintenance Checklist
Modifying a vehicle can help you minimize any risks while you’re driving. However, to ensure that it remains safe and reliable, you must maintain your car. Completing vehicle maintenance on schedule can prevent vehicle equipment and technology from malfunctioning. It also ensures you are compliant with any warranty guidelines. Below is a list of maintenance tasks and how often you should perform them.
- Oil change: Motor oil needs to be changed every three months or 3,000 miles. Synthetic oil should be changed every 6 to 12 months or 5,000 to 10,000 miles.
- Tire pressure: A tire gauge can help you check tire pressure. Good tire pressure can help extend the life of your tires and even improve your car’s fuel efficiency.
- Tire rotation: Rotation extends the life of your tires. You can also use the opportunity to check the tread and condition of all four wheels.
- Fluid checks: Ask your service provider to check your car’s fluid levels. Maintaining full and fresh fluids can keep your vehicle in top shape.
- Car battery checks: Check your car’s battery when you check the fluids. A good battery can ensure your car starts reliably, even in cold weather. If you check the battery on your own, wear gloves and turn off the car.
- Wiper replacement: If your windshield remains dirty even after running your wipers, then it’s time to buy a new set. Wipers can ensure your vision is not obstructed in poor weather.
- Brake pads and spark plugs check: Ask your maintenance provider to include your brake pads and spark plugs in their inspection.
- Vehicle inspection: See if your headlights, parking lights and turn signals are functioning properly.
- Mobility equipment and conversion safety inspection: Find qualified inspection agencies to ensure that your adaptive equipment works well. For example, RADCO is recognized by NMEDA and the California Department of Rehabilitation.
Transportation Assistance for People with Disabilities
Vehicles can help people earn a livelihood and access other services. However, some people with disabilities may find it difficult to drive due to their disability. If that’s the case for you, consider checking available transportation assistance programs near you. While getting a ride from family members or friends can help in the short term, establishing a reliable backup can help ensure continued access to transportation. Below are a few resources which are broadening vehicular access.
- Volunteer Assisted Transportation (VAT): Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, this program provides rides for seniors and persons with disabilities who need assistance when traveling.
- Rides in Sight: This resource provides a database on transportation programs for older adults and those who are visually impaired.
- Need a Ride?: The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization has a fleet of transportation services around the country that provide free transportation to and from VA medical facilities.
- Special Transport Services: Depending on where you live, you may have access to door-to-door transport services. An example of this is San Francisco’s Paratransit, a van and taxi program that provides services to eligible individuals with disabilities.
- Uber ACCESS: People with disabilities can request a door-to-door ride using a ridesharing company. Uber, for instance, has launched UberACCESS and UberASSIST in various cities to offer rides with trained drivers and vehicles that can accommodate wheelchairs, scooters and other mobility needs.
- Taxis: Traditional taxis can be an option for getting around your city or town.
- Public Transportation: Taking the bus, train or subway is one of the most affordable options for commuters.
Expert Insight on Understanding Insurance and Modifications
MoneyGeek spoke with industry leaders to provide expert insight on navigating car insurance for people with disabilities and understanding the vehicle modification process.
- What legal action can you take if an insurance company cancels your policy because of a disability?
- Are there any illegal vehicle modifications? What will happen if I happen to have them in my car?
- What are the best education programs available to help drivers with disabilities?
Founding Partner and Insurance Coverage Lawyer at Wruck Paupore PC
Attorney and Head of the Social Security Disability Department at the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin
Founder & CEO of Seniors Life Insurance Finder
Personal Injury Attorney and Founder of Stewart J. Guss
Trial Attorney and Founder of The Carrion Firm, PLLC
Additional Resources on Vehicle Modifications and Insurance
If you have a disability and you’re looking for information about vehicle modification and car insurance, you can find various resources online. There may also be organizations in your area that provide assistance and support to people with disabilities.
- American Automobile Association (AAA): AAA offers programs for seniors looking for local defensive driving courses. Drivers who successfully complete a defensive driving course may be eligible for senior auto insurance premium discounts.
- AARP: AARP is a nonprofit organization that focuses on empowering people so that they can have better quality of life. It also offers driver safety resources and courses for adults aged 50 or older.
- American Safety Council: The American Safety Council is an online source for people looking for online driver education, workplace safety training and other professional certifications.
- Armed Forces Insurance (AFI): The AFI offers information about insurance for military members, whether you are an active-duty member, retired and or honorably discharged.
- BraunAbility: BraunAbility provides links to dealers which provide financial resources and disability vehicle grants. You can check your options by clicking on your state.
- Car ownership programs for low-income earners: Look up a car program in your area to loan or purchase a car, as well as low income car insurance. 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.
- Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN): In addition to helping employers recruit, retain and advance employees with disabilities, EARN offers a one-stop resource page for people looking for vocational rehabilitation agencies in each state.
- Grants.gov: This website offers various resources and tools related to federal grants. It also comes in a mobile app version that can be downloaded on the Apple app store or Google Play.
- InCharge Debt Solutions: InCharge Debt Solutions provides a list of options for people with disabilities and medical conditions looking for financial help.
- National Aging and Disability Transportation Center (NADTC): NADTC is a technical assistance center that aims to increase transportation options for older adults, people with disabilities and caregivers. It also offers grants to help communities in assessing their transportation needs and developing new models to increase transportation service accessibility.
- National Center for Mobility Management (NCMM): NCMM is a technical assistance center operating on a national level. Its goal is to pursue, facilitate and support partnerships to help enhance transportation options for people with disabilities, older adults and low-income families.
- National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA): NMEDA is a nonprofit trade association representing the automotive mobility industry. It provides options, resources and help with funding for adaptive equipment for those with disabilities.
- Paralyzed Veterans of America: This organization offers services to veterans, especially those who can benefit from greater accessibility and mobility resources.
- The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA): AOTA provides information about driving and mobility, as well as rehabilitation and disability.
- The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (ADED): ADED has a search tool you can use to find certified driver rehabilitation specialists, modified equipment dealers and mobility equipment manufacturers.
- International Bureau for Epilepsy (IBE): IBE addresses social issues affecting people with epilepsy, including driving-license restrictions. It provides support, information exchange and policy focus for people with epilepsy.
- The Center for Self-Determination: This nonprofit provides information and training about self-determination to empower people with disabilities, their families and allies. Resources on guardianship may be particularly relevant to people who want to drive, since some types of guardianship can nullify the need for driver’s licenses in some states.
- Northwest Access Fund: The Northwest Access Fund provides a comprehensive list of resources which can help you find support.
About Nathan Paulus
- Bureau of Transportation Statistics. "Travel Patterns of American Adults with Disabilities." Accessed October 30, 2021.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "Adapted Vehicles." Accessed November 15, 2021.