However, people with disabilities have been modifying cars with their own inventions since the early 1900s. Frank E Fithen is considered the earliest pioneer of creating and using adaptive mobility equipment for motor vehicles. Fithen’s arms were amputated after a childhood accident. As a young adult, he redesigned his car with a series of rings on the steering wheel to accommodate his residual limbs. Fithen then drove across the contiguous United States, showcasing his driving skills at fairs and carnivals. At the time, many drivers didn’t like to go over speeds of one mile per hour. Fithen broke distance and speed records traveling at 58 miles per hour. Around the same time, future Judge Quentin D. Corley adapted his car’s steeling wheel with a steel hoop, enabling him to steer with the hook on his left hand. Coincidentally, Corley was injured in a childhood accident also involving a train, similar to Fithen’s. As a result of the accident, Corley lost most of his left forearm, along with his entire right arm and shoulder.
Due to polio and the first two world war, the early twenties century saw an increase in people with disabilities in the U.S. After World War II, car manufacturers Ford and General Motors began to modify vehicles for wounded veterans. Eventually, they would include civilians with disabilities, as well.
Senator Bob Dole was one of such wounded veterans. During combat, Senator Dole was injured from a gunshot wound. As a result of the injury, Dole was partially paralyzed on his left side and mostly paralyzed on his right. At some point, he was a spokesperson for the modification of the vehicles until the military put the kibosh on Dole endorsing the auto companies.
Those are just three examples of the people with disabilities who served as pioneers in creating adaptive technology for vehicles. Almost a hundred years later, we’ve come a long way. Not just in how society views people with disabilities, but how we strive for inclusivity and accessibility. Automotive companies are at the forefront of this change by including new adaptive technology and spearheading the modification inventions. Some of the most common assistive modifications available on the market today include:
for people with limited range of motion.
allows for starting the vehicle by touch.
for people with limited range of motion.
people who are paralyzed from the waist down can use hand controls instead of foot pedals.
moving seat back can enable wheelchairs to fit without removing the entire seat.
doors can be opened or closed by remote touch.
allows people who are deaf a wider range of vision; required in some states.
for those with limited hand function.
a more advanced version of the rings Frank Fithen used in his cars.
for people who have weak or missing right legs/feet.
Losing the ability to drive is one of the hardest pills to swallow for people with disabilities. Getting in your car and hitting the road gives you a feeling of freedom and euphoria. The open road, wind in your hair and the radio blaring is the quintessential rite of passage. People without disabilities are downright shocked when they find out that people who use wheelchairs – even paraplegics – can drive. The vehicles don’t come off the assembly line tricked out in assistive devices (yet). While some cars have the technology already installed for use by people without disabilities that can be adapted and manipulated by a person with disabilities, the cars typically require expensive modifications instead.
Here are 5 of the most adaptive vehicles for people with disabilities:
BraunAbility is an American company based in Indiana that modifies vehicles with assistive devices for people with disabilities. Founded by Ralph Braun, who had spinal muscular atrophy, the company specializes in making automobiles wheelchair accessible. Before modification, the Honda Odyssey is an award-winning minivan with built-in technological and safety features, such as:
assists in braking when an inevitable collision is detected
a small camera tracks road markers and alerts driver if the car is about to leave the road
maintains a set speed on the highway so you don’t have to manually change speeds
if the vehicle detects straying from the center line, the steering adjusts to bring the vehicle back to the center of the lane
a 7-inch screen on the driver’s dashboard includes app controls, phone calls and sensing indicators
manual gear shift levers are replaced by one-touch electronic gear selectors
Aside from making the van wheelchair accessible by installing ramps and removing seats, BraunAbility add additional features such as cabin and ramp lighting for navigating in the dark.
While the Jeep Grand Cherokee doesn’t come with wheelchair accessibility, it can be modified by removing seats and installing ramps and lift. Other features that can assist people with disabilities while driving include:
answer or send phone calls, request song or navigate all by the sound of your voice.
get specific directions or search for nearby restaurants, gas stations, etc.
be alerted when another vehicle enters your blind spot
alerts you to an impending collision and engages brakes
monitors lane boundaries and alerts you when they are crossed
Vantage Mobility International (VMI) is another company that converts vehicles to make them wheelchair accessible. Honda’s Odyssey is a popular minivan for such conversion. The VMI version includes features such as:
for wide-use and up to 800-pound weight capacity.
Removes front or rear seats to accommodate wheelchairs.
enables ramp and lift to work in the event of a power outage.
alerts when a collision is detected.
tracks road markers via small camera and alerts driver if the car is about to leave the roadway.
automatically maintains speed.
Alerts drive if the vehicle is in danger of crossing traffic lanes.
dashboard interface includes a 7-inch screen with visual notifications.
gears are changed by the touch of a button.
A company that specializes in vehicle modification, Mobily SVM (Special Vehicle Manufactures) has made a dream come true for many people with disabilities. That dream? A wheelchair accessible truck. When you think of wheelchair accessible vehicles, you think of huge vans that fill those reserved accessible parking spots in grocery store parking lots.
When fitting vehicles for mobility access, most vehicles require lowering the underbody to 4-inches from the ground. This negates the attraction of a pick-up truck – the height allows for traversing rugged land without worrying about damaging the undercarriage. Mobility SVM makes it possible to lift wheelchairs directly into either the driver or passenger side of the vehicle, while preserving the truck’s 9-inch ground clearance height. How? The founders of the company designed and created a platform mobility lift that lifts the wheelchair (and the person sitting in it) directly into the vehicle. The doors open just 36-inches, leaving ample room to fit in non-handicap parking spaces.
The truth is that automotive manufacturers don’t produce vehicles with readily-made with wheel-chair accessibility features straight off the assembly line. Until now, with the company Mobility Ventures (MV-1) new wheelchair-accessible van made specifically to meet and exceed the needs of a people who use wheelchairs. There are several models of these vans available for purchase. The adaptive features of the vans include:
While the big names in automotive manufacturing don’t yet make cars specifically with people with disabilities in mind, many of the leading car companies offer vehicles purchase discounts. Modifying a car with assistive technology can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $80,000! That is essentially the price of TWO cars. The majority of the discount programs offer reimbursement toward adaptive technology.
up to $1000 in adaptive equipment assistance in new Ford, Lincoln or Mercury vehicles.
reimburses up to $1000 in adaptive equipment in new Volvos.
cash reimbursement up to $1000 for adaptive or conversion equipment on new Toyotas.
up to $1000 reimbursement for adaptive equipment plus 2 extra years of OnStar coverage.
up to $1000 in adaptive equipment in new Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep vehicles.
offers up to $1000 toward adaptive equipment.
Making vehicles accessible for people with disabilities usually means wheelchair ramps or hands-free controls. People who are deaf have an invisible disability that can make driving a stressful experience. People who are deaf often refer to their eyes as “hawk eyes,” meaning their eyes see everything that people with normal hearing typically don’t even notice. While it may be true that sight and other senses are enhanced to make up for the missing hearing sense, it also means that everyday activities can be exhausting.
When auto companies manufacture cars with features like the digital dashboard display that visually and audibly warns drivers of dangers or issues, these tricked-out features for the benefit of non-disabled people. Many of these features can be inadvertently helpful for drivers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, but that isn’t their intended purpose.
Hyundai has created an innovative car technology specifically for people who are deaf. Using artificial intelligence, the vehicle’s software will be able to analyze external sound and convert it to two driving-assist programs called Audio-Visual Conversion (AVC) and Audio-Tactile Conversion (ATC.) The new technology includes the follow accessible features for people who are deaf:
•Traffic sounds (horns, emergency sirens) converted into symbols on the head-up window display.
•The same traffic sounds will also be sent as a vibration onto the steering wheel.
•LED lights on the steering wheel offer navigational information
While the technology has been developed to assist people with hearing disabilities, the vibration and visual displays can help all drivers, especially the early notification of emergency vehicles.
Adaptive Accessibility pioneer Fithen and Corley would be amazed if they were around to see how far society has come in accepting and accommodating people with disabilities. The almost-daily invention of new technology unintentionally leaves people with disabilities constantly scrambling to keep up with the changes. It seems as soon as accessibility to one technology is gained, five new inaccessible technologies replace the now-accessible-but-obsolete technology.
However, the innovation of the new MV-1 assembly-line-ready wheelchair-accessible vans and Hyundai’s technology that makes cars more accessible to people who are deaf indicates that having a disability is far less of a stigma than it was a hundred years ago. We have a long way to go, but with more accessible travel options, we will ALL get there.