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Driving and Staying Mobile with a Disability

If you live with a disability, getting around town can be a hassle. Fortunately, technological advances have opened the door for many people with disabilities to safely drive a car, and there are more and more options for those who need alternative transportation.

Adaptive equipment and technology

For some drivers with disabilities, outfitting a vehicle with assistive technology can be a vital step toward mobility. A simple addition like a pedal extender may cost less than $100, while a comprehensive conversion can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. A new vehicle with adapted technology can cost between $20,000 and $80,000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

David Hubbard, CEO of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA), notes that it's important to have modifications done by a professional. NMEDA is a useful resource to find assistive modifications and special vehicles for drivers with disabilities.

Working with NMEDA or another organization with vehicle conversion standards also helps ensure the parts will be installed correctly. Ask about the technicians' training and experience before allowing them to work on your car. If possible, find a shop that will also perform services to repair and maintain assistive technology once it's installed.

Financial assistance for modifications

Whether you're planning to modify your own vehicle or purchase a new vehicle with assistive technology, you may need financial assistance. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations that can help finance the modifications you need. Veterans can contact their local Department of Veterans Affairs for guidance. Ask about insurance providers that offer discounts for veterans, and request an application for adaptive equipment for your vehicle.

Plan to Achieve Self Support, a Social Security Administration program, helps people with disabilities save money to buy the equipment they need to return to work. Also, you may be able to get a tax break on any assistive devices or technology.

How disabilities may affect auto insurance rates

Just like anyone else, drivers with disabilities need insurance. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage or charging higher rates to licensed drivers solely because they have a disability. In most cases, a disability should have little to no bearing on a driver's insurance application, according to Michael Barry, vice president of media relations at the Insurance Information Institute (III).

The insurer is just "looking to see if they're a licensed driver, as opposed to a licensed disabled driver," he explains. Unless the driver's disability is listed on his or her license, it may not enter into the conversation at all.

Still, drivers with certain conditions may end up paying higher rates. Medical issues like epilepsy, heart conditions or uncontrolled diabetes may make you a greater risk in the eyes of an insurance provider. In these cases, you may be asked to provide information about your last episode and periodic medical evaluations from your doctor to the DMV.

Depending on the nature of your disability, you may be given a restricted license. For example, if your vision is barely at legal standard, you may be restricted to driving only in the daytime. Or if you're unable to use your right arm, you may be restricted to driving a car with automatic transmission.

It's likely you'll pay a higher premium for collision and comprehensive insurance on a car that has been modified with expensive adaptive technologies. "The auto insurer is looking at what it's going to cost to repair this vehicle in the case of a collision," Barry explains.

Although the ADA prohibits auto insurance companies from charging a higher premium or denying coverage purely on the basis of disability, some drivers may still face discrimination. Unfortunately, this can be difficult to prove.

"The auto insurer is not under an obligation to issue a policy to somebody," says Barry. The insurance company can refuse to issue a policy for any number of reasons, including reckless driving behavior or other factors that make a driver high-risk. Still, if a driver with a disability has a clean driving record and is denied by multiple insurers, it's a red flag.

What if you don't drive?

For those people who are unable to drive because of their disability, there are a growing number of transportation options. Public transportation is quite affordable and widely available, even in some suburban areas. Depending on where you live, you may find transportation services, like Paratransit, specifically for people with disabilities.

Taxis can't discriminate against individuals with disabilities by refusing to give them a ride. But you'll likely need to call ahead to ensure you get a taxi that can accommodate any equipment you may need to bring with you, like a wheelchair.

Driving services like Uber can also make a difference for people with disabilities since they can request pick-up from their home when they need it, rather than being at the whim of a bus or train schedule. In recent years, Uber has also launched UberACCESS and UberASSIST in cities across the country. These services offer rides from drivers who are trained in accessibility needs and can accommodate wheelchairs.

If you have recently been disabled or diagnosed with a medical condition that puts into question your ability to drive safely, you may want to consider a driver rehabilitation program. These programs evaluate a person's physical and mental ability to drive safely. The loss of a limb, an Alzheimer's diagnosis or a spinal injury, for example, may be a reason to seek out a driver rehabilitation program.

A disability may be an obstacle to getting around, but obstacles were made to be cleared.

References

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. https://www.nhtsa.gov/road-safety/drivers-disabilities

National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA). http://www.nmeda.com/

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). https://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08mark.htm#12201c

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