Life with MS

Vehicle Modifications Let You Stay Behind the Wheel

By Christopher C. Paine
Driving is a fact of life in America. Getting where you need to go often requires being able to get in the car and go from point A to point B and back again, perhaps with a few impromptu stops in between. But when you live with multiple sclerosis, it may not be so simple. While most people with MS will never require a wheelchair, there are those who may require modifications to their vehicle so they can retain their freedom of movement on the open road. The steps involved in staying mobile are getting an evaluation, deciding on the vehicle modifications, and paying for them.
The Evaluation
The first part of the process is the initial evaluation. This may be offered at locations such as rehabilitation hospitals, veteran’s centers, motor vehicle departments, or MS centers. Seek out a driver rehabilitation specialist near you by contacting the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists or a local independent living center.
The evaluation will cover physical abilities, including vision; motion range, flexibility and muscle strength; reaction time and coordination; and the ability to drive with adaptive equipment. Cognitive abilities will also likely be evaluated, including decision-making ability and judgment. The consultation will include safety issues and compatibility with the assistive technology. They will look at issues such as your ability to get in and out of the vehicle. The consultation will also include helping you determine the best vehicle for your needs.
The Vehicle Modifications
The vehicle modification process includes three crucial parts: selecting the vehicle, selecting the modifications, and having the modifications made to the vehicle.
The evaluation will determine what modifications you need in order to drive. These modifications will vary depending on the severity of your disability.
In some cases you may be able to simply modify the vehicle so you can drive from your wheelchair or a powered transfer seat. In other cases, you may have more high-tech requirements that include joystick and keypad controls, and reduced effort breaks and steering systems. Your vehicle may require hoists and carriers, ramps and running boards, mechanical hand controls, or a left foot accelerator.
Once you know what modifications you need, you then need to decide on a vehicle. In some cases, your existing vehicle may meet the requirements for modification.
When deciding on a new vehicle, you and the driver rehabilitation specialist need to work together with a qualified vehicle modification dealer to find the right vehicle for you before you buy.
For Charles Lee, of Leicester, N.C., it started with a very basic choice, “I had to start buying cars with automatic transmissions.”
Some of the questions you should ask before deciding on a vehicle include the following:
• Do you need a van or will another vehicle do for your required modifications?
• Can your choice of vehicle accommodate the equipment that needs to be installed?
• Once the adaptive equipment is installed, will there be enough space to fit other passengers?
• Is there enough space at home and at work to accommodate the vehicle and the possible loading and unloading of a wheelchair?
• Is there enough space to get around if you are using a walker?
Finally, you have to have the modifications installed. Upfitters are professionals who install adaptive equipment into vehicles. They ensure that modifications are suited to the individual and comply with state and federal regulations. There will be some training involved. New and experienced drivers will need to learn how to use the assistive technology installed in the vehicle. You will also need to make sure that a family member or significant other is trained on the devices installed on your vehicle in the event of an emergency. Lastly, you will need regular maintenance to ensure that the modifications remain safe and reliable for the life of the vehicle.
Paying for Modifications
Modifications to a vehicle can be very expensive, sometimes running into the tens of thousands of dollars. There are a number of resources available to help defray the cost of modifying your vehicle. The main ways of getting the modifications paid for are your insurance company; federal and state programs; the car companies themselves; and nonprofit organizations, such as MS Focus: The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.
The first thing to do is to check with your insurance carrier. Your policy may cover adaptive devices and vehicle modifications. If you are initially denied you always have the option to appeal the decision.
The federal programs that help pay for vehicle modifications are Medicare, Medicaid, and the Social Security Administration’s Supplemental Security Income program. Under certain circumstances, and following an evaluation,
Medicare may pay for vehicle modifications. In some cases, the program will cover the cost of adaptive equipment after an evaluation by a qualified practitioner has been performed. Medicaid benefits differ depending on the state, but often offer benefits not covered by Medicare. Funding requests for equipment are approved on a case-by-case basis.
The Supplemental Security Income Plan to Achieve Self-Support program helps those with disabilities to pay for items and services linked to employment. This may include necessary vehicle modifications. For veterans, the VA offers a grant program that helps them purchase a new or used vehicle if an injury or disease occurred or worsened during active military service. Finally, the IRS may allow you to deduct the cost of your vehicle modifications from your taxes if it qualifies as a medical necessity.
State vocational rehabilitation agencies may provide programs to help alleviate the costs of purchasing an adapted vehicle, or adding adaptive equipment to an existing one, if the vehicle is needed to get to and from work. States that offer assistive technology loan programs may provide help in paying for vehicle modifications. And also check in with your local Center for Independent Living for more information on available state programs.
Some automakers offer programs that cover owned and leased vehicles as well as installation of adaptive equipment by third parties. Companies that offer rebates include – but are not limited to – Ford, GM, Volkswagen, Audi and Toyota. These reimbursements may range from $200 to $1,500 depending on the company and the adaptive technology being installed. There are a wide range of requirements and options; consult a dealership for more details. Nonprofits, like MS Focus, may also include programs to help lighten the burden of the cost of modifying your vehicle.
Being able to get around is a very important part of living with multiple sclerosis. The freedom and independence that come with being able to drive can greatly contribute to your well-being and livelihood. Modifications to your vehicle can make it easier to stay independent and productive. By working with a driver rehabilitation specialist and knowing your funding options, you can remain at the wheel of your life rather than being a passenger.