Private vehicles can be an important mode of transport but may require modifications for the comfort and accessibility of people with disability.
A range of vehicle modifications are available to help passengers with disability to access private transport
Lifts, ramps, hoists and seat modifications can be installed to assist with the person getting into or out of the car and with loading their mobility equipment
It is important to consider what type of vehicle is best for the modifications you need and you can also look into whether the NDIS might fund your modifications
Modifications range from ways to help people with disability to get in and out of a car or van to electric systems which help to load a mobility aid such as a wheelchair into the vehicle.
This article outlines the main forms of vehicle modifications which can help passengers with disability to use private transport options.
To help you get in and out of the car you can have swivel seats installed, or just have a swivelling base fitted underneath your original seat.
These seats turn on an electronic system towards the open door of the vehicle so that you don’t have to swing your legs around as with a normal forward facing seat.
Swivel seats also prevent you from having to twist or turn your body to sit in or get out of the seat and can be installed on an electronically operated system which not only swivels the seat but also lowers it towards the ground.
A lowering swivel seat can be helpful if the vehicle is set higher off of the ground, such as a van or SUV.
The chair used on a lowering swivel seat base can also be transferred directly onto an electric wheelchair base with some models, so the person in the chair does not need to move at all to go from sitting in the car to sitting in a wheelchair and they remain in the same seat.
The other type of seat modification is a transfer platform, which is a flat and sturdy wing attached to the side of a regular seat.
The platform folds down to provide a space for you to slide onto outside the door frame, to free your legs from the confined space and make it easier to then slide into a wheelchair or stand more steadily from.
When not in use, the platform folds up beside the seat so the door can be closed.
Hoists are electronic arms, also called cranes, which lift a wheelchair, mobility scooter or other mobility aid off the ground and either into the car or onto the roof.
These systems come in a range of shapes, sizes and uses to suit the range of mobility aids you might use.
Some may lift only a light manual wheelchair - around 35 kilograms - and others may be able to lift more than 180 kilograms, for heavy based electric chairs.
While hoists usually lift a mobility aid up and swing it into the boot of a car, there are electronic arms which lift a wheelchair from the side of the vehicle where the person who uses the chair has entered the vehicle and move the wheelchair to the back of the car to load into the boot.
Hoists can also be installed to lift a folded manual wheelchair from the ground onto the roof racks of the car or into the tray of a ute.
If you need a hoist for a person rather than a mobility aid, there are mobile hoists which are not attached to the vehicle and can be used to lift someone into the car.
Hoists for lifting people with disability do need to be operated by another person but can still make getting into or out of the car easier.
Lifts and ramps
Lifts generally have a flat platform which the wheelchair is rolled onto and the platform is then electronically lifted into the back of the car.
These can be used to only load a wheelchair or to help a person with disability to get into the car.
For example, people who use walking frames can walk onto the lift with their frame and be lifted into the vehicle to access their seat, or people in wheelchairs can wheel onto the lift then wheel into place to lock into the floor of the vehicle, remaining in their chair for the ride.
Some lifts then fold up towards the back of the vehicle, behind the wheelchair, but they can also come in formats which fold into a slot in the floor or fold against the inside of the vehicle.
A cheaper option is to purchase a wide ramp which a person with disability can use to get into the back of the vehicle on, or a set of ramps - one for each wheel of wheelchair.
Ramps could either be bolted into the back of your vehicle and fold away when not in use, or just sit on a groove at the rear of the boot for stability and lift off after use to fold and store anywhere in the vehicle.
With both lifts and ramps you will need to have space in the back or side of your vehicle to fit the wheelchair, which may require the removal of seats and the installation of locks or anchor points on the floor to keep the wheelchair in place while the vehicle is moving.
You may need to look into what type of vehicle will best suit the modifications you need.
For example, a small hatchback will not be able to be modified to fit an electric wheelchair in the back seat, but may be able to have a hoist installed to lift your folded wheelchair or smaller mobility aid into the boot.
An SUV or 4WD might be able to be fitted with a swivel seat, but a van could be the most accessible option for lifts and ramp modifications either in the back or via the sliding doors on the side.
The doors on a van are less likely to need modification to make them wide enough to fit a wheelchair than the doors on a smaller vehicle.
If you can’t afford a new car you may still be able to purchase a second hand car which can be modified within your budget, or you may also be able to locate a second hand car which has already been modified for the previous owner but meets your needs as well.
It is a good idea to have an occupational therapist assess what vehicle modifications will be best for you and to ensure that the modifications you want to make are legal in your State or Territory, before you purchase a vehicle or make any modifications to a vehicle you already own.
Specialists in vehicle modifications can be found through our Disability Support Guide website.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) will fund vehicle modifications under strict conditions if it is important for your transportation, although it will not fund the purchase of the vehicle itself.
As with all NDIS funding the modifications must be reasonable and necessary.
You will likely need to own the vehicle or use it regularly for your transport needs, and also need to be able to afford the running costs of the vehicle, such as registration, fuel and insurance.
The vehicles which are generally considered suitable for funded modifications are less than five years old with a mileage of less than 80,000 kilometres.
Have you modified a car or van for accessibility? Tell us in the comments below.