Accessible travel for mobility-challenged people
Cars are symbols of independence for many people, including folks with disabilities. According to the U.S. Board of Transportation, at least 9 percent of Americans ages 5 and older have travel-limiting conditions, but travel is possible and beneficial for many physically disabled Americans.
If you have a physical disability, you may have found car trips to be frustrating or overly complicated. With some experimentation, you can still find ways to make travel more bearable. Car trips can be fun and freeing — with the appropriate planning and processes for your body.
This guide to car travel with physical disabilities explains the basics of car travel if you or a companion have a physical disability such as arthritis, back pain, paralysis, limited mobility, weight issues, spastic cerebral palsy, or circulation disorders. With an accessible vehicle, mobility devices, and planning, you can travel easier in recreational vehicles even if you have physical disabilities.
As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Embark on day and weekend trips at first to prepare for longer drives.1 You’ll find out about potential travel issues with fewer downsides than if you jumped right into a huge trip. Of course, you can still plan a big journey; just experiment with a few shorter trips before embarking on the big one, whether you are a passenger or a driver.
Before you take off, sit in different car seats to see if a certain spot is especially comfortable or uncomfortable for you. You might find out how long you can sit comfortably in the front seat, or how long you can sit without being in pain.
Many folks, particularly those with nausea and vestibular disabilities, prefer the front seat since it is roomier and more adjustable. Plus, in an accident, you may be more likely to slam forward when sitting in the back.
Get an accessibility license plate or placard if you do not already have one. That’ll make it much easier to park close to your destination.
Some people with physical disabilities travel in vehicles customized for their accessibility. These cars may have hand controls, swivel seats, ramps, or occupant restraints. In other words, your current vehicle could possibly be adapted to be more accessible for you, or you could purchase a new vehicle and start from scratch with accessibility.
To find out more, consult a rehab specialist or explore websites such as BraunAbility. Among other things, BraunAbility can lead you to nearby dealers who can help.3 The company also has a program called Click&Drive that helps you work with a local dealer and mobility professional on vehicle accessibility and customization. Financing options include trade-ins and rebates.
Route planning makes for smoother trips. For instance, route planning could help identify frequently congested areas that might prove stressful, as well as good spots for rests or meals.
About two weeks before your trip, note the supplies you use every day and how much of each you use. Unless you’re an experienced traveler with a good grasp on what to pack, bring double the amount of essential supplies you need, just to be safe. Consider the following supplies:
People with disabilities are at higher risk of being victims of violent crimes.6 It goes without saying that car travel, especially for solo travelers with disabilities, can pose unique safety risks. It’s good to be prepared if your vehicle breaks down or if you feel unsafe at a rest stop.
As always, follow basic pre-trip steps such as taking your car in for a tuneup, oil change, or tire rotation, and telling people where you are traveling and when. Here are a few more tips for travel safety:
Service or emotional support animals are necessary for many car trips. As always, start with taking them on smaller travels and work your way up from there (particularly if the animals are not used to vehicles). Keep your animals secured in the vehicle, and pack their food, water bowl, treats, grooming supplies, and their bed or crate.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), car rental agencies are not allowed to charge pet deposit fees when you rent a car for travel with an official service animal. If the animal causes damage to the vehicle, though, the company can charge you. In contrast, rental agencies are allowed to charge deposit fees for emotional support animals, which do not count as official service animals according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Service animals are trained to complete specific tasks or duties, and emotional support animals are not.10
Traveling with a physical disability is doable in many situations, especially with patience, flexibility, and persistence. It may be that a trip of one or two days is all you can realistically manage, and that is perfectly fine. The quality, not the quantity, of your car trips is what really matters.
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Find BraunAbility Handicap Vans Dealers Near You. BraunAbility. (2022).
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Flush Toiler Finder. jr. (2022).
Victims with Disabilities. Office for Victims of Crime. (2022, April 21).
Adaptive Martial Arts Association. (2022).
Martial Arts. Move United. (2022).
Self-Defense Class Helps Wheelchair Users Prevent Attacks and Defend Themselves. Shepherd Center. (2016, March 25).
Service Dogs, Working Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs: What’s the Difference? American Kennel Club. (2021, February 24).