For people with physical disabilities accessing a car for everyday transport can be more difficult and sometimes even uncomfortable.
But driving yourself around by car can be an important part of your independence and there are a range of vehicle modification options you can look into to make accessing your car easier and more comfortable.
Modifications can be made to your vehicle to allow you to drive it easily and comfortably
The modifications range from moving pedals so you can operate them with your preferred leg to a handle allowing you to turn the steering wheel more easily
The NDIS may fund vehicle modifications under strict conditions
We’ve brought together the most common vehicle modifications to give you some ideas about what options might help you to get into the driver’s seat.
You might also like to ask other people you know, with similar physical abilities to you, about how they have had their vehicle modified.
Legs and feet
If you need a modification to allow you to use the clutch, brake or accelerator pedals there are a few ways you can have your existing abilities supported.
You may be able to drive an automatic car with no modifications at all If you have a strong and mobile right leg, as you can use that leg to operate both the brake and accelerator pedals.
The pedals can be moved over to the left side of the footwell if your left leg is the mobile one and can be extended if you need them to be closer to the seat.
Prosthetic legs and feet can also be used to drive, but you may need to make sure they don’t have an impact on your control of the pedals or the movement of your joints when switching between pedals.
Modifications can also be made to remove the pedals and have controls placed around the steering wheel if the best way for you to control the car is to use your hands or arms instead of your legs.
Hand controls usually operate as a lever which you pull on to accelerate and push on to brake.
Another example of controls around the steering wheel is wireless satellite accelerators, which are battery operated, hand held and cause the car to accelerate when you press the lever with your thumb.
Accelerator rings are slightly smaller than the steering wheel and placed over the top, causing acceleration when you push on any part of the ring.
A duck clutch can allow you to use the clutch in a manual car by moving a lever up and down on the back of the gear stick with your fingers.
With so many different options for hand controls, it is worth reaching out to manufacturers to see what could work best with your car and best suit your needs.
Arms and hands
Some of the most simple vehicle modifications support the use of the steering wheel with your upper body.
These range from screw on spinner knobs, which can enable you to turn the steering wheel using less grip strength and just one hand, to individualised holsters attached to the steering wheel to place your arm in and turn the wheel with.
A prosthetic hand or limb could also be fitted to help you grip or turn the steering wheel, or an aid could be developed to attach to your shoulder and a push/pull lever operating the accelerator, if you also need a different way to use regular foot pedals.
Joysticks are another option for easier maneuverability or operation of some controls with limited hand function.
Like with the foot pedals, controls regularly operated by hand can be moved into a place which is easy and comfortable for you to access.
For example, the handbrake can be moved from your left side to your right side and switches in your door which control the windows or even open the door can be moved onto the centre console on your left side.
Some switches and controls can also be turned into foot pedals, for example you might be able to have the cruise control converted into a pedal or have a pedal which operates the windscreen wipers.
A pedal to operate your steering wheel can also be fitted.
This works via a physical attachment to the steering wheel which turns it based on how far you press the pedal down.
If you have medium pressure on the steering pedal the car will likely be going straight, and you can lessen or increase the pressure to turn left or right.
You may find it easiest and most comfortable to drive a car using a voice command system where a microphone is fitted above the steering wheel aiming towards you to pick up your commands.
The microphone will not be impacted by noise from the radio and is designed to only respond to the voice of the driver, however these systems generally only control functions like the indicators, headlights, horn, windscreen wipers, windows and cruise control.
You will still need to use the pedals to accelerate and brake and the steering wheel to steer.
Outside door handles can be adapted to suit your grip and arm strength so you can open the car independently to get in.
Limited head and neck movement
Being able to use the side and rear view mirrors on a car are an important part of driving safely, but mirrors may be difficult for you to see if you have limited head or neck movement.
Minor modifications to where your mirrors are placed can help to put them in a position you can see easily and comfortably.
Fisheye mirrors can also be fitted to give you better vision in any additional blind spots you might have to ensure you are safe while changing lanes or turning across roads and pathways.
Modifications for wheelchair accessibility
If you're unable to transfer from your wheelchair to the car seat there are options to modify your vehicle and make it more accessible.
The driver’s seat in your car can be removed to allow your wheelchair to fit in its place and the driver’s door can be modified to give you the space to fit the wheelchair through.
If your car can be modified to allow you to wheel into the driver’s position by yourself you may also need an automatic locking system to keep your wheelchair in place and ensure you can be truly independent.
If you have your car modified so that you can only access the driver’s seat with the help of another person you could have a manual locking system for your wheelchair which they can help you to lock into place.
Joysticks can often be used by people with quadriplegia to control a car and they come in a mechanical or hydraulic system, like an aeroplane joystick, or an electronic system, like a gaming console control.
NDIS funding for vehicle modifications
Funding may be available through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) to help you modify your vehicle but there are strict criteria you must meet.
Generally the vehicle should:
Be less than five years old
Have travelled less than 80,000 kilometres
Be recommended to be modified by a qualified professional assistive technology assessor
Be able to have modifications installed by a supplier which meets the standards in your State or Territory
Be owned by you or be used by you for your transport needs
Be one that you can afford the running costs of, including fuel, registration and insurance
Have you made modifications to your vehicle to enable you to drive? Tell us in the comments below.