Vehicle Modifications

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Today, people with special needs have more opportunities to drive than ever before because of the evolution of adaptive equipment. Choosing the right vehicle modifications, however, is a complex process that, if handled properly, can get a person out on the road.

When a body moves differently, vehicles can change

Driving is synonymous with the notion of putting the pedal to the metal. There’s no reason that this exercise in speed and freedom can’t be accomplished by a hand as opposed to a foot.

Being able to operate a personal vehicle opens up so many doors that it can be hard to imagine what life might be like without one; unless of course a person lives in an area with a robust public transportation. People with special needs are often hindered socially and economically if they can’t drive.

More options to operate a vehicle without assistance, or ride in one, are available than a person can imagine. Vehicles can be highly-personalized with adaptive equipment that can be easily operated. Pedals and controls can be moved; traditional equipment can be sidelined in favor of modified controls that allow a person to safety operate a vehicle within their physical needs.

What is a modified vehicle?

A modified vehicle is a car, van, or truck with controls that have been customized to match a person’s abilities. If a person has Cerebral Palsy or another condition that affects his or her movement, driving a conventional vehicle can be an impossibility simply because the location of controls – or how they are operated – is not a good fit with the person’s abilities.

A vehicle with modifications includes equipment that is designed to allow a person to enter, exit, and operate a vehicle in a way that meets his or her needs. In some cases, equipment not found on conventional vehicles – like hand controls or wheelchair lifts – are installed, or the controls and equipment are re-located within a vehicle for an adaptive driver.

Modified vehicles are used by both drivers, and families that include a person with disabilities. In all situations, modifications should be value-added in that they should make it easy for a person to operate a vehicle and observe the rules of the road in a way that is safe.

When a modified vehicle works properly, it should:

  • Ensure all equipment can be activated and deactivated on and off the road
  • That all controls are reachable, or within the control of, the driver
  • Be comfortable and meet the traveling needs of a driver, passenger, or family

Why is a modified vehicle a vital tool for a person with disabilities?

The ability to drive gives a person a sense of freedom. The vehicle gives a person the ability to travel to and from a job, socialize, travel, or pursue hobbies. It may seem like all of those things are still possible without a vehicle – and for many people, that may be the case.

But if a person depends on mass transit, he or she is beholden to a certain schedule. If a community does not have expensive transportation systems, it may close a person off from the world.

The evolution of technology has broadened the options for people who would like to learn how to drive, but are unable to do so in a conventional vehicle. Learning how to drive an adaptive vehicle is a long, sometimes exasperating experience. For most people, however, the benefit of being able to operate a vehicle is worth the time spent learning to drive.

Before a person commits to a specific set of vehicle modifications, he or should:

  • Have a needs evaluation
  • Think about the type of vehicle they need or want
  • Investigate cost savings opportunities
  • Consider how his or her vehicle will be maintained
  • Choosing a qualified vendor to make modifications

What modifications can be made to a vehicle?

The list of vehicle modifications that can enable a person to drive is a long one. Sometimes, a small add-on piece of equipment can make operating a vehicle much easier. However, there are some modifications that employ high-tech attributes, and much effort to install.

Some vehicle modifications are designed to address fine motor concerns – small grips in the right places can help people who have trouble making small, deliberate movements. Modifications that are meant to simplify – or compensate for gross motor movements – tend to be more complex.

Vehicle modifications that address fine motor challenges include:

  • Automatic door/window openers – modified levers that are easily gripped to open or close power or manual doors and windows
  • Knobs – modified knobs make gripping the levers easier, or the levers are moved into a place that is more accessible to the driver
  • Palm grips – modified handles that can be gripped by the palms
  • Modified-effort steering – steering that does not require the use of force
  • Right-hand turn signal – the signaling device can be moved when a person cannot comfortable use his or her left hand
  • Quad key turner – a holder that makes it easier to grip and turn a key in the vehicle’s ignition
  • Quad steering device – a splint attached to the steering wheel making it easier to turn
  • Remote switches – controls can be operated and managed from a remote device
  • Amputee rings – ring attached to the steering wheel to make it easier to steer with a hook or prosthetic hand

Vehicle modifications that address gross motor challenges include:

  • Steering column extension – column is moved forward from its typical position to make it reachable
  • Gear selector – the level is modified to make it easier for a person to shift the vehicle into gear; it can be moved into place with less effort
  • Hand controls – when all of the vehicle’s functions that are typically operated by the feet – such as the accelerator or the brake – are operated by a series of hand controls
  • Left-foot accelerators – If a person does not have the use of his or her right leg, the accelerator can be moved
  • Lifts and ramps – these are used to help a person that uses a wheelchair to enter, and exit a vehicle from a driver’s or passenger’s position
  • Raised roofs and dropped floors – modifications made to create new space within a vehicle, and improve accessibility
  • Transfer seats – built to help a person shift his or her body into and out of a seat and out of the vehicle

Modified security equipment includes:

  • Car seats and restraints – designed to keep wheelchairs or other adaptive equipment securely in place
  • Driver seat adaptations – seats modified to fit a person’s body or seats that can be moved to accommodate a person’s wheelchair
  • Pedal extensions – an extension is added to the brake and accelerator so a driver can safely reach them from a seated position
  • Siren detector – a device that signals a person who is deaf or hard of hearing if there’s an emergency siren in the area by using a light
  • Tie downs – restraints that hold a wheelchair safely in place
  • Bioptic telescope – provides magnification for people with visual impairments
  • Wheelchair carrier – a special modification that can hold a wheelchair in place when it’s not in use; it should be accessible to a person in the vehicle

How does a person know what kind of modifications he or she will need?

Once a person is old enough to seek a driver’s license; he or she likely thinks they understand their body and its needs; however, physical barriers may come into play that had not been previously considered.

A certified driver rehabilitation specialist is a professional that helps and adaptive driver work through those barriers. The first step is to seek out an assessment of a person’s abilities. This tells the specialist what equipment is needed based on a person’s actual needs, not just perceptions.

A specialist will assess the following factors:

  • A person’s vision
  • A person’s physical capabilities
  • A driver’s medical history
  • A person’s psychological state
  • A person’s reaction times
  • A person’s ability to operate a vehicle with adaptive equipment in traffic
  • The level of risk associated with the driver
  • What type of vehicle a person will need

Once an evaluation is complete, the process of making modifications to a vehicle begins. From there, a process of installing equipment, testing out the modifications with the driver, and assessing whether further equipment is needed. The specialist will then train the driver on how to drive using the adaptive equipment so ay deficiencies in a person’s driving can be adjusted through education, or additional equipment.

Specialists often work with mobility programs offered by the automakers, if the vehicle is new. However, independent specialists can be located by using the ADED website.

Remember, the role of a specialist is to help make a person confident in his or her ability to drive, comfortable on the road, and address any concerns related driving a vehicle.

What are the standards or criteria for a driver rehabilitation specialists?

Driver rehabilitation specialists must meet several requirements to practice their profession, although specific regulations vary from state to state.

Specialists in most cases are required to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. They must also hold a professional license issued by the state where they work; it must be in good standing. Typically, people who work as specialists have prior work experience as an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, a psychologist, a nurse or a driver’s education instructor.

The main certifying body is the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, or ADED. The association requires that certification candidates obtain three years of experience providing adaptive driver’s services to people with conditions that they would like to continue servicing.

On the Go!

a man in a wheelchair traveling an wonderful road

On the Go!

Transportation, for a person with a disability, is a major concern because when he or she can’t get from place to place, it tends to restrict him or her from participating in other life activities. Advances in technology have made private vehicle travel attainable, and even more preferable. More and more, individuals with a disability are able to modify their vehicles and obtain adaptive driver’s licensure to enhance independence. Whether traveling by air, by bus, on a train or in a wheelchair, travel must be safe and convenient for all.