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Adaptive Vehicle Options for People with Disabilities

Updated on October 16, 2014

Getting behind the wheel can be challenging for those of us with mobility impairments. Apart from studying for the driving exam and making all the required trips to the DMV to become a licensed driver, we need to think about things like “what kind of vehicle will I be able to drive?” or “will I be able to transfer myself in and out of my car?” or “am I limited to driving a van?” Thankfully today there are an array of options for drivers with disabilities. In recent years, vans with expensive lifts and hand controls seemed to be the only option for drivers with mobility challenges, but if you are looking for an adaptive vehicle, please know that you are not limited to vans alone. With preparation, research, and a little creativity, you will find there are lots of choices when it comes to finding the right adaptive vehicle.

Hand Controls installed in vehicle
Hand Controls installed in vehicle | Source

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The first step in determining the type of vehicle that will work for your needs is to make a wish list of your wants and needs. This wish list will make it much easier when you start visiting dealerships. Start making your wish list by answering the following questions:

  • How much strength do you have to maneuver your own wheelchair or mobility equipment?

  • Can you easily transfer out of your chair and into your car or do you need a lift to transport you and your chair into the vehicle?

  • What kind of wheelchair do you have and how tall is it?

If you’re looking for a wheelchair lift to load and unload your chair, you will need to know the exact dimensions of your chair to find both a lift and a vehicle equipped to adapt to the lift.

  • How many other people will typically ride with you in your vehicle?

You will want to know this ahead of time to know how much room a lift, mobility equipment, or your wheelchair will take up and how much seating space will be left for passengers.

  • Do you need or want hand controls?

If you have never driven before and are unsure if you need hand controls, ask at your DMV for an assessment to help determine the right adaptability options.

  • Will other people be driving your vehicle or just yourself?

If just yourself, you can adapt your vehicle to fit your own needs. If you are going to be sharing the vehicle with a spouse or family members, the adaptations you make to your vehicle will also need to accommodate those who may potentially drive or ride.

  • Is your height or the seat you sit in a concern?

If you have short stature or need support in your vehicle’s seat, you will need to start thinking about what type of seat will work best for you and the style of dash. Large dashes or dashes that bubble up, like those popular in vans could pose a problem if adapting your vehicle to your height is a concern.

Swivel seat options are available that swing in and out to make transferring from your wheelchair to your vehicle seat easier.

MV-1

MV-1 with a wheelchair ramp
MV-1 with a wheelchair ramp | Source

The MV-1 is the latest vehicle designed specifically with the disability community in mind. It’s the first wheelchair accessible luxury vehicle, designed around the driver’s wheelchair. It comes in standard, deluxe, and luxury editions. This vehicle was not only designed with the disabled driver in mind, it meets or exceeds all ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements. The MV-1 offers a more stylish alternative to large vans, yet offers all the same features including a ramp allowing the user to easily enter and exit without leaving their wheelchair.

  • Some unique features that the MV-1 offers include:

  • Suicide opening doors that allow the user to open a ramp and drive right into the vehicle with their wheelchair.

  • Ramp stowes under the vehicle’s floor.

  • Ramp holds up to 1200 pounds.

  • Ramp is controlled through the key fob.

Honda Element

Honda Element's suicide doors
Honda Element's suicide doors | Source

The Honda Element is a lower-cost option, offering similar features to the MV-1 including suicide doors that open wide to accommodate a ramp or the ability to load your wheelchair into the back end of the vehicle.

The trunk is also 40” long which easily accommodates many types of wheelchair lifts that can be installed in the rear of the vehicle. The Element is a sturdy vehicle designed for off-roading so you won’t need to worry about having to be too careful which can sometimes be tricky when loading and unloading a wheelchair each time you enter and exit your vehicle.

Extended Cab Pickups

Chevy Colorado Extended Cab
Chevy Colorado Extended Cab | Source

Extended cab pickups are a great option if you are a manual wheelchair user and still have enough range of motion to be able to transfer your wheelchair in and out of your vehicle by yourself. Extended cab pickups typically offer a 3rd door that opens into a backseat. For drivers who use wheelchairs, this backseat can be folded up or removed to make room to haul your chair. Simply transfer yourself to the driver’s seat, open the 3rd door, fold your wheelchair up and side it right in.

There are also new lift options for pickups including a ramp that slides out from under the driver’s side, allowing you to lift yourself into the cab while staying in your wheelchair so you can drive from the comfort of your own chair. A dealership will need to install the ramp and remove the front seat.

If you are looking for a regular cab pickup, you can still adapt your truck to carry your wheelchair with you. Some wheelchair lift styles can be mounted right behind the back window in the box of the truck. The arms swing out and lift your wheelchair right into the back of your box. Keep in mind these styles of trucks will require you to expose your chair to the weather, unlike extended cab trucks which offer the opportunity to carry your wheelchair inside the cab with you.

Cars with Suicide Doors

Nissan Navara has suicide doors
Nissan Navara has suicide doors | Source

Much like extended cab pickups, there are different car options with a 3rd or 4th suicide door for you to choose from if you are looking for a more practical family vehicle or something a little closer to the ground than a pickup.

Below are some examples of cars with suicide doors to look for if you think this style will work for you:

  • Fiat 600

  • Saturn Ion

  • Saturn SC

Trikes

Motorcycle trikes for disabled drivers
Motorcycle trikes for disabled drivers | Source

If you are a more adventurous motorist and have always dreamed of feeling the open road with the wind running through your hair, a trike might be the right solution for you. Several motorcycle dealers create trikes which are 3-wheel motorcycles, giving the driver stability on the road.

Trike designers offer much more space to haul equipment around with you so they’re a great option for manual wheelchair users. If you are able to lift your own wheelchair from the seat of the trike, you can add a trunk to the back end of the trike that flips open and allows you to throw your chair right in.

You can even work with the dealership to request a sidecar option instead of a trunk if you prefer to load your wheelchair into the sidecar. Most dealerships are very willing to work with drivers with disabilities even allowing you to try out different models to see what works best for your needs. Most will even special order or make modifications for you on site.

There are also trikes that can be modified to allow the driver to wheel right up into the driver position without leaving the seat of their wheelchair. Secure straps would need to be installed to ensure you don’t go anywhere once you take off!

SUVs with Large Trunks

Nissan Cube large trunk
Nissan Cube large trunk | Source

Some popular wheelchair lifts that are trunk mounting, like the line offered by Bruno, require a large open trunk space to accommodate the height of the lift and the height of your wheelchair. These types of lifts usually come with an arm that swings out at the push of a button, then lowers down a tie strap with a claw to which you can connect your folded manual chair. Then the user simply presses a button to lift the chair and swing it into the trunk. For this type of lift, typically a 40” trunk opening or larger is required.

Some SUV options for this type of lift you may want to consider include:

  • Nissan Cube

  • Scion XB

  • Chevy Suburban

  • Ford Flex

  • Jeep Wrangler

  • Toyota RAV4 (has a unique hatch back design that opens from the side rather than from the top)

  • Ford Explorer (also comes with foot activated lift gate to make opening your trunk a breeze)

Beware that many SUVs can be higher off of the ground and could be a bit more difficult to transfer from the seat of your wheelchair into the driver’s seat. Different lift styles or adding running boards if you are have enough mobility to transfer yourself in and out of your vehicle can be good options to help remediate the tall SUV height.

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    • WheelerWife profile imageAUTHOR

      WheelerWife 

      4 years ago from Minnesota

      Georzetta - thanks for checking out my hub! Suicide doors is a slang name for the style of doors that open in opposite directions. They became popular in vintage cars during the gangster era -I believe they are called that because of the "danger" of the old car doors being able to open during transit. Now, cars with this type of door of course do not pose the same danger as they once did in the past. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Georzetta profile image

      Georzetta Ratcliffe 

      4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      This is a good and informative article but I have never heard of "suicide" doors. Is it another name for side doors?

    • girlpower profile image

      girlpower 

      4 years ago from eugene oregon

      Great hub, what is that contraption on the womans hand in the beginning of the article, i have a handle like device that allows me to control the gas and the brake, but i haven't gotten to use it yet as i sold my car due to expenses, but one day i would love to buy a vehicle. Some towns have borrow a car program where they pay for the insurance and you rent the car like once a month. but i wonder if they have vehicles with the adaptive equipment already installed, that way i could schedule the loaner car for like once a month and not have to keep insurance on it. Although if i parked it in the driveway and took the insurance off, and when i use it i call the insurance co and put the coverage on, just putting on comprehensive while its parked

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