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Published: May 31, 2022Last updated: September 1, 2022

Car Travel for People With Physical Disabilities

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.

Start With Shorter Trips

Start With Shorter Trips

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.

 

Choose Your Seat Carefully

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.

CheckTIP

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.

Troubleshoot Common Travel Issues

  1. Learn to drive with your physical disability. If you developed a physical disability after learning to drive, you might need to adjust the way you operate your vehicle. A driver rehab specialist can help. Find an instructor near you on the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists website.2
  2. Don’t forget to take your medications. Set prescription timer caps or phone reminders and try to keep similar schedules for meals, rest, and other parts of your routine.
  3. Don’t worry that you are slowing others down. Don’t put your health at risk to please others. Only travel with companions who understand your needs, whether they are a family member or a friend. Breaking up your group into multiple vehicles can also address these concerns.
  4. Don’t rush. Schedule plenty of time for breaks and recovery, both during the trip and after. Ensure that sleeping conditions for each night are as comfortable as possible. If you need to, plan to stay in a hotel for a few more hours, or a whole day instead of driving for long stretches.
  5. Don’t run out of or forget supplies. Pack prescriptions, extra supplies, and spare parts for equipment, such as a backup wheelchair for wheelchair users. Have any doctors’ contact information ready. Create a packing checklist to make sure that you don’t leave any necessary items at home.
  6. Manage pain during and after travel. Use accessories such as neck or seat cushions. Your doctor may have specific solutions based on your conditions.
  7. Prepare for a medical emergency. Wear a medical ID bracelet, keep a printed list of medical information and medications handy, and create a similar list on your phone.
  8. Know what you’ll do if your caregiver experiences fatigue. Plan ahead for several people to help your caregiver, or bring a professional caregiver/home health aide on the trip.
  9. Avoid damage to wheelchairs and walkers. Secure your gear, whether it’s in the trunk or the cabin of the car. It’s easy for wheelchairs, walkers, and other equipment to jolt forward during a sudden stop and either hurt you, get damaged, or both.
  10. Use modified vehicles. If you rent a vehicle, look for one with features like higher seats for easier entry and exit, plenty of legroom between the seat and the door frame, reclining seats, electric, heated/cooled seats, keyless entry, hands-free liftgate, parking assistance tech, abundant and accessible cargo space (to store equipment and other supplies for the trip), hands-free navigation/GPS, grab bars, and Bluetooth.

Light BulbNOTE

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.

  1. Wear comfortable clothes or shoes. 
      • Undergarments: Wear socks, underwear, and bras you already feel comfortable in. Car trips are not the time to experiment with new pairs. Even mildly too-tight socks can end up causing agony on travels.4
      • Bottoms: Sweatpants, yoga pants, or long skirts may keep you comfortable for hours while sitting in the car. They’re also easy to pack and space-friendly for your suitcase. Conversely, jeans can be tricky to put on, often feel restrictive, and gobble up more luggage space.
      • Tops: Sweaters could be too bulky and uncomfortable, making moving around harder. If the weather is cold, long-sleeved shirts and blankets may better fit the bill.
      • Shoes: Bring at least two pairs, or more if you have the space.
  2. Consider luggage space. Luggage space matters, especially for people who always have a lap. Their clothes are at higher risk of spills and various mishaps. Aim to pack one pair of pants for each day you travel. If you’re on the road for more than a week, find somewhere to do laundry every week.

Plan the Route and Schedule

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.

  1. Build extra time into your itinerary. Don’t push 12-hour travel days when eight hours is better for your health.
  2. Map the route to minimize stressors. Suppose traffic jams cause you stress, which then worsens your symptoms. You could plan a route that avoids major highways, even if the trip takes longer. The extra time is worth your health and peace of mind.
  3. Plan breaks around interesting sites or good picnic spots. Find multiple break spots ahead of time in case your first choice is closed.
  4. Travel when the weather is good, if possible.
  5. Scout wheelchair-accessible bathrooms ahead of time. State-run rest areas, as well as big chain stores like Starbucks, will typically have ADA-compliant facilities. Use a mobile app such as Flush to find accessible public restrooms along your route.5
  6. Consider taking stops about every two hours. 
  7. Consider bringing a travel companion. 
  8. Pick a destination that has high accessibility standards. U.S. national parks are highly accessible, and individuals with permanent disabilities may qualify for free lifetime passes. Additionally, major theme parks like Disney World and cruise ships such as Royal Caribbean, Holland America, and Celebrity Cruises tend to be very accomodating for people of all abilities.

Bring Plenty of Supplies

Start With Shorter Trips

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:

  • Spare parts or backup equipment, such as a wheelchair or a toolkit to make wheelchair repairs
  • Meal ingredients, plates, utensils, and drinkware, if you prefer to make your own food
  • Refillable water bottles
  • Toiletry bag for prescriptions and prescription timer caps
  • Neck pillow or other doctor-recommended or prescribed gear
  • Jacket with lots of compartments and storage space
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Heated seat covers, if your car doesn’t have them
  • Pain relief patches
  • Shower chair (for hotels or lodging)
  • Entertainment (Kindle, tablet for streaming movies, music)
  • Compression socks
  • Foldable cane with seat attached
  • Medical wristband/ID
  • Backup phone battery chargers
  • Headlamps, flashlights, and other lighting options
  • Towels
  • Blankets
  • Portable bidet, bedside commode, travel urinal
  • Rain jackets, umbrellas, sunglasses, and sun protection
  • Anti-chafe balm
  • Extra changes of clothes
  • Daypack or small backpack

Make Safety a Priority

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:

  1. Trust your gut if you’re in a situation that makes you uncomfortable.
  2. Look into self-defense classes. Your community or local hospitals may offer some, either for people with your disability or adaptable classes. Organizations such as the Adaptive Martial Arts Association7, Move United8, and the Shepherd Center offer self-defense instruction.9
  3. Think about bringing legal weapons you’re comfortable using. For instance, keys, pepper spray, or kubatons (self-defense keychain weapons) may work well. Pepper spray is generally legal throughout the United States for adults 18 and older, although some states restrict how much you can have.
  4. If you’re comfortable, share your location with trusted contacts on your smartphone so they know where you are during your trip.

Car Travel With Service Animals

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

Conclusion

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.

Citations

  1. Travel Tips: What You Need to Know for Driving or Flying with an Ostomy. Lee, Cory. (2018, July 30).
    https://curbfreewithcorylee.com/2018/07/30/flying-with-an-ostomy/

  2. Search for an ADED Member. ADED. (2022).
    https://www.aded.net/search/custom.asp?id=1984

  3. Find BraunAbility Handicap Vans Dealers Near You. BraunAbility. (2022).
    https://www.braunability.com/us/en/handicap-mobility-van-dealer-locator.html

  4. The Ultimate Wheelchair Travel Packing List. Her Packing List. (2016, April 18).
    https://herpackinglist.com/ultimate-wheelchair-travel-packing-list/

  5. Flush Toiler Finder. jr. (2022).
    https://www.jrustonapps.com/apps/flush-toilet-finder

  6. Victims with Disabilities. Office for Victims of Crime. (2022, April 21).
    https://ovc.ojp.gov/topics/victims-with-disabilities

  7. Adaptive Martial Arts Association. (2022).
    https://adaptivemartialarts.org/

  8. Martial Arts. Move United. (2022).
    https://moveunitedsport.org/sport/martial-arts/

  9. Self-Defense Class Helps Wheelchair Users Prevent Attacks and Defend Themselves. Shepherd Center. (2016, March 25).
    https://news.shepherd.org/self-defense-class-helps-wheelchair-users-prevent-attacks-and-defend-themselves/

  10. Service Dogs, Working Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs: What’s the Difference? American Kennel Club. (2021, February 24).
    https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/service-working-therapy-emotional-support-dogs/