Driving With a Disability
Having a disability doesn’t bar you from having the freedom and independence of driving. Driving is possible for many people who have a disability. With the help of specialized driving courses and new adaptive equipment, driving while having a disability is becoming easier and more accessible every day.
Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, departments of motor vehicles cannot deny a person a driver’s license simply because of a disability.
What are some disabilities that people drive with?
Many people with a disability can drive safely. The type and severity of a disability can determine whether driving is safe for you. These are some of the disabilities that people have who are still able to drive.
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
Individuals with mild cases of dementia (such as Alzheimer’s disease) may still be able to drive. But as memory loss increases or decision-making skills deteriorate, they should stop driving. If you’re not sure about whether it’s safe for you or a loved one with dementia to drive, ask the patient’s doctor to make this determination.
Each state has regulations on how a person with epilepsy can get a driver’s license. Many states require people with epilepsy to be seizure-free for a specific length of time and submit a physician’s evaluation of their ability to drive safely. Other common requirements include ongoing medical reports while they have their driver’s license.
Having any loss of hearing will affect your ability to hear your surroundings while driving, such as another vehicle honking or a train horn if you’re about to drive over train tracks. If you are hard of hearing, don’t drive if your doctor believes it would put you and others at risk for an accident.
Paralysis may prevent a driver from controlling certain vehicle functions while driving, like steering or using the gas and brake pedals. However, modern assistive devices, such as foot wheels, are available to help overcome many situations.
Reduced limb or finger function
It can be challenging for drivers to use a car’s control functions — such as the turn signal, windshield wipers, and cruise control — if they have reduced limb or finger function. Assistive tools, such as control extensions, can help make driving more accessible.
Those who have recently had a stroke may have weakened muscles and therefore may experience challenges with vehicle control functions. Depending on the level of weakness, assistive tools, such as a tri-pin steering device, may make driving more accessible.
People with Parkinson’s disease may have tremors and/or stiffness in their limbs, which can be a driving risk. People with Parkinson’s disease are often able to safely drive during the early stages of their diagnosis or if medications help control their symptoms, but as the disease progresses, their symptoms may become too severe for safe driving.
Driving With Developmental Disabilities
It is becoming more common for people who have developmental disabilities to drive. Autism and ADHD are common disabilities that people have while still being able to drive safely. However, someone with a developmental disability should not drive if the symptoms of their disability can cause them to be at a higher risk for a vehicle crash.
Teens with developmental disabilities can learn how to drive, but parents should ensure they’re ready first. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recommends a few questions for parents to ask before deciding if their teen is ready:
Do you believe your teen is consistently showing good judgment and maturity in social settings?
How receptive is your teen to constructive criticism and instruction?
How well does your teen show knowledge of the rules of the road and other skills taught in driver education classes?
Does your teen agree to practice driving with a skilled adult before driving independently?
Are there any medical or behavioral conditions that you believe may prevent your teen from being able to drive safely?
Does your teen need any medical interventions to ensure safe driving behaviors?
People with autism are still able to drive safely. In fact, a study from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism and Research and the Center for Injury Research and Prevention found that young drivers with autism were 45 percent less likely to be issued citations for a moving violation than the average for people of their age.
Nonetheless, people with autism may experience some challenges while driving, including:
- Becoming easily distracted by things happening around them
- Having difficulty with hand-eye-foot coordination
Some driving instructors specialize in teaching people with autism how to drive and overcome some of their challenges. They suggest some simple tasks during driver training:
- Practicing the same skill many times
- Using driving simulation experiences such as video games to become familiar with vehicle controls and driving functions
- Identifying the specific areas the individual needs to work on to help them overcome their driving challenges
People with ADHD are capable of driving. However, they can be easily distracted, act on impulse, and struggle to regulate their emotions. These characteristics have led teen drivers with ADHD to be more likely to engage in risky behavior while driving, such as not wearing a seatbelt, speeding, and driving while intoxicated. A Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia study found that teen drivers with ADHD were more likely to be issued traffic and moving violations or be involved in vehicle crashes.
Managing symptoms of ADHD is crucial for a person with ADHD to drive safely. People learning to drive while taking ADHD medication need to regularly check in with their doctor to make sure their medication is working properly.
If you believe you or your teen are ready to begin learning how to drive, consult with a driving instructor who is familiar with teaching individuals with ADHD how to drive.
Driving With Physical Disabilities
People who are missing a limb or body part or have some form of paralysis are often able to find ways to drive safely. Additionally, those who have experienced a stroke, spinal cord injury, or brain injury are often able to drive with accommodations. With the advancement of technology and new tools, modifications to vehicles are available for easier navigation and better accessibility so that people with various kinds of disabilities can safely operate a vehicle.
Adaptive Equipment and Modifications for Individuals Driving With Disabilities
Lift pedals: lifts that extend vehicle pedals to be closer to the driver’s body, making them easier to reach for drivers who have lost their foot or the lower part of their leg
Wheelchair lift: a mechanical device that raises a wheelchair from the ground and into the vehicle
Wheelchair securement: a tool that clips a wheelchair into the vehicle to keep it from moving around while driving
Foot wheels: a rotating wheel placed near the pedals that can be used by a person’s foot to steer the car, often used by someone who has lost the use of their upper body
Joysticks: allow people with limited hand or arm mobility to operate steering, brakes, and acceleration more easily
Left foot accelerator: an accelerator pedal placed on the left side of the brake for a driver that has lost the function of their right leg or foot
Turn signal adapter: allows the driver to control the turn signal from the top, bottom, or the opposite side of the steering wheel, for those who have limitations of hand or arm mobility
Control extensions: small wheels placed on control buttons, such as windshield wipers or headlights, so that the driver can access these controls without having to bend their finger
Steering ball: an extension of the steering wheel that makes it easier for the driver to steer while using just one arm
You will need to ensure that you’re trained to properly use your new adaptive equipment. A driver rehabilitation specialist can help you to learn to drive safely, whether you’re learning to drive for the first time with this equipment or are re-learning how to drive after losing some physical abilities.
Paying and Obtaining Funding for Adaptive Driving Equipment and Modifications
The cost of installing modifications or buying a new vehicle with adjustments to help people with disabilities drive varies based on the individual needs and type of equipment needed. Smaller adjustments, like a seat cushion, can be as low as $50, while more complex hand controls may be as much as $1,000. If you’re buying a new vehicle with adaptive equipment already installed, the total cost for both the new car and needed equipment may range between $20,000 to $80,000.
There are several opportunities for people looking to buy adaptive driving equipment to receive financial help:
- Nonprofits: Nonprofits that focus on disability advocacy may have programs to provide funding. To learn more, try contacting disability-specific organizations to see if they offer funding support or know other organizations that do. You can also check with your state’s vocational rehabilitation agency to get support finding assistance.
- Insurance companies: Some insurance companies will cover part of the costs associated with adaptive driving equipment. Insurance companies are more likely to cover some costs for adaptive equipment if the need for the equipment is because of a crash or a job-related accident. Reach out to your car insurance provider to find out more.
- Major vehicle manufacturers: Many offer rebates of up to $1,000 for adaptive tools. Your automobile dealer can provide you with more information and an application to apply for the rebate.
- State and federal agencies: Governmental grants may be available to support funding for needed equipment. Reach out to your state’s vocational rehabilitation agency, department of developmental disabilities, or department of mental health. If you are a veteran, you can also try contacting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Consult with a driver rehabilitation specialist before buying any adaptive equipment or a vehicle with modifications so that you can be sure you are getting the right equipment for your specific needs.
Driver Licensing Requirements for Individuals With Disabilities
The rules for getting a driver’s license for someone with disabilities will vary by state. Anyone applying for a driver’s license will need to pass a written and driving exam. Some states will have specific driver’s education courses and exams for people with disabilities. State DMVs, including Minnesota’s, may allow individuals with disabilities to ask for more time to take the driving test if it’s needed.
Contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles for your state’s specific laws on obtaining a driver’s license.
How to Get a Handicapped Parking Permit
Contact your local DMV to obtain a handicapped parking permit. Costs, timelines, and regulations will vary depending on your state. You will generally need a signed letter from your doctor (or another healthcare provider). Some DMVs will only issue handicapped parking permits for a particular period of time, while others offer permanent handicapped parking permits.
Steps To Getting On the Road With a Disability
If you or your teen have a disability but want to learn how to drive, here are a few steps to follow:
Speak with your doctor so they can evaluate if you or your teen can safely drive. The doctor may test vision, muscle strength, range of motion, hand-eye coordination, and decision-making abilities.
If you’re able to drive, find a driving instructor who has experience working with people who have disabilities.
You will then have to complete a written driver’s test as well as a physical driving test to get certified. Make sure you’re aware of any additional requirements or paperwork you’ll need depending on how your state regulates driving with you or your teen’s disability.
Pick the right vehicle. Look at different options to find the one best for you or your teen. Be mindful of the basic features that make all driving easier, such as power steering, windows, and locks.
Consider if you will need any adaptive equipment and vehicle modifications to make driving more accessible. Talk with your car dealer about modifications they can make or what you may need to have customized. If you require the use of a wheelchair, larger vehicles, such as a van or SUV, are best.
These resources may help you get your driver’s license and fund any adaptive modifications to your vehicle that you might need:
- National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association: How to find funding for your mobility vehicle
- The Mobility Resource: State grants for wheelchair vans
- American Occupational Therapy Association: Find a driving rehabilitation provider
- Shirley Ryan Ability Lab: Grants for adaptive sports equipment, automotive, and home needs
Protecting Your Rights as a Driver With Disabilities
As a driver with a disability, you are just as safe on the road as anyone else, but you’re not immune to other drivers’ negligence. You may also have trouble seeking disability claims that you’re entitled to.