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On her bad days, Vicky Watkins was lifting her uncooperative left leg with her hand in order to brake her car.
On his good days, Gerald Pilgrim was arriving at work aching with fatigue, even though his late-model station wagon was fully equipped with power steering and power brakes.
For a while, both Gerald and Vicky avoided discussing these problems, fearing they would be told to stop driving. But both of them are reasonable people. Moreover, Vicky knew about hand-operated controls; she just hated the idea. (See “I never wanted to buy a van”.) Gerald, on the other hand, had never heard of low-effort steering wheels. Thanks to adaptations, both of them are now safely behind the wheel and on the road.
Start with the basics
This is a big deal. Getting an adapted vehicle is much more involved than an ordinary search for new wheels. It involves all that goes into a car purchase, plus. While doctors may offer general ideas they don’t necessarily know the best and latest adaptive equipment. Most people will need a driving specialist—a physical or occupational therapist with adapted-vehicle experience. The specialist can help determine specific needs and ensure that good driver training is in the mix.
Physical therapist Susan Kushner, an associate professor at Slippery Rock University’s Graduate School of Physical Therapy, notes that insurers often reimburse people for seeing a physical therapist who can recommend adaptive equipment. And a professional’s prescription can be the key to tax deductions and other financial help, discussed below.
A specialist and a driving assessment
A neurologist who has many patients with MS may refer you to a qualified therapist. Your National MS Society chapter may have driving specialists on its referral list. Or you can start by calling the Association of Driver Rehabilitation Specialists—ADED—at 800-290-2344.
ADED recommends an evaluation for adapted driving. If you undergo driving rehabilitation, you will get a prescription for the vehicle modifications that best suit your needs. For a preview of the association’s driving assessment, visit www.infinitec.org/live/driving/driveassess.htm on the Web.
You are still left with a host of choices: should you adapt the vehicle you have or purchase a new or a used one? Which equipment provider will meet your needs? How can all this be financed? And how can you choose among all the available adaptive products?
From product selection to financing, this is “a process you have to work through,” according to Jerry Stalls, president of Stalls Medical Inc. of Raleigh, North Carolina, who has been an adaptive equipment provider for 30 years.
Project Link, a nationwide information service (http://www.phhp.ufl.edu/ot/projectlink/ or 877-770-7303), mails manufacturers’ catalogs and brochures to registered users. Disability Resources Monthly supports a comprehensive Web site (http://www.disabilityresources.org/) with a regional resource directory and hundreds of useful links, including some funding sources.
Two other prime sources are:
Infinitec at http://www.infinitec.org/, which explores “infinite potential through assistive technology” (click the “Live” tab for information on adaptive driving); and the National Rehabilitation Information Center at http://www.naric.com/, a nationwide clearinghouse of research and databases.
Options, options, options
Jerry Stalls has learned from his years in the rehab field that it’s best not to take the first option presented when you shop. He says that when providers “work through the different questions that help the consumer understand the options, they pick something that works well for them and their lifestyle.”
Most people with mobility issues chose specially adapted and outfitted vans. Disabled Dealer Magazine is published in regional editions, so the vehicle you want won’t be 2,000 miles away. Both magazine and Web site (http://www.disableddealer.com/) list used accessible vehicles and other equipment, with pricing, photos, specifications, and contact information. The Web site also lists mobility equipment dealers nationwide and, among other things, posts links to accessible van rental agencies for when you travel. Your local medical equipment provider may work with vehicles or may refer you to a car dealer. Not all vans can be modified, so check with an accessibility expert before you agree to buy.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) posts a brochure at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/rules/adaptive/brochure/ with information on evaluating your needs, choosing the right vehicle, selecting a qualified dealer, and more.
Get help paying for it
Insurance won’t pay for vehicles or adaptations. What should you do? Start with your state’s vocational rehabilitation agency if driving is linked to your ability to keep or find employment. Next, investigate grants from local social-service organizations, foundations, or agencies such as Easter Seals or the Lions Club. The ABLEDATA Information Center includes a Funding Resource Center. Your Society chapter may have information on other funding in your area.
Loans custom-fit for people with disabilities are available. For example, the Digital Federal Credit Union (http://www.dcu.org/) offers members of the American Association for People with Disabilities special Mobility Vehicle and Access loans. But check your local banks and finance agencies as well. Finally, most major automobile manufacturers offer some financial assistance—usually grants up to $1,000—for installing adaptive equipment, but only on new vehicles. (See resources, below.)
Ask a tax consultant about sales-tax exemptions on equipment purchases and whether any of your costs qualify for tax deduction as medical expenses. Should an adaptation qualify as a medical necessity, you can deduct your out-of-pocket cost from your federal taxes. To support the deduction (in the event of an audit), get a letter from your prescribing professional. You can get literature outlining the tax code for medical equipment by calling the IRS at 800-829-1040 or by visiting www.irs.gov. (Publications 3966, 907, and 502 may be of greatest relevance.)
Check used vehicles and adaptations carefully
Take a used vehicle you’re considering to your own mechanic, not the dealer’s—before you invest in modifying (or further modifying). Make sure it’s in good enough shape to be worth it. Then have your adapted-driving specialist check it as well. When buying a previously adapted vehicle, get quotes in advance on any further modifications you may require. You can find used equipment through many medical equipment providers, some auto dealers, classified ads in newspapers and online. Ask around!
Rachel Adelson is a freelance journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
This article originally appeared in the August-September 2005 issue of InsideMS.