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5 Ways to Make Your Car More Accessible

Accessories to ease transporting mobility-challenged loved ones can cost as little as $10 or $20


spinner image A disabled man has gotten out of a car, and is sitting in his wheelchair.  His loving wife is standing beside, with her arm around him
KALI9/GETTY IMAGES

Sometimes caregivers have to step in to provide transportation for people who face mobility challenges, whether they are full-time users of wheelchairs, get around with walkers, use a cane, or merely are a bit stiff and grateful for a hand.

For many older adults and people with disabilities, the simple act of getting into or out of a vehicle can be “quite difficult,” says John Schall, chief executive of the nonprofit Caregivers Action Network. He notes the strain that can come with “turning the body to get the legs out, then leaning on the door handle for balance, and getting away from the car” into a wheelchair or walker.

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The good news is that several devices easily found in stores and online can considerably ease that strain for people with mobility problems, and for their caregivers.

These portable, inexpensive tools are “a good starting point” for making cars more accessible, although users might eventually need to graduate to more permanent solutions, says Cassy Churchill of Winamac, Indiana-based BraunAbility, which makes and sells a range of mobility equipment and modified vehicles.

An occupational therapist can help you find the safest and most appropriate gear to help your loved one, she adds.

spinner image Stander handle bars for those who are disabled to be able to get in and out of a vehicle
Medical King/Stander

Assist bar

The lowdown: Also known as a grab bar or Handybar (in the popular version sold online by mobility products company Stander), this is a small, lightweight, L-shaped device that serves as a portable support for getting into and out of a vehicle.

The shorter portion of the “L” shoves down into the U-shaped latch attached to the doorjamb on most cars. The longer, padded portion sticks out at a right angle, providing a grab handle to help a person rise from or lower into a seat. Remove and stow the bar to close the door.

Small enough to fit into a coat pocket or purse, the assist bar easily can be carried from car to car and used on either side of a vehicle. Some brands have tiny flashlights built into the handle; others have key compartments.

Typically, the bars are designed with seat belt cutters and glass breakers to get out of a car in emergencies.

Be aware: When not in use, the bar “needs to be secure inside the car,” says Elin Schold Davis, coordinator of the Older Driver Initiative Project at the American Occupational Therapy Association. “It weighs enough that if you’re in a crash you don’t want it flying around. Put it in the center console or tucked away.” 

Price: $10 to $30, depending on brand and seller.

spinner image Woman using a Stander car caddie to get in and out of a vehicle
Stander

Assist strap

The lowdown: Often called car caddies, support straps or transfer straps, these devices can be strapped around the frame of a front-door window, dangling a wide handle users grasp and pull on to rise out of the vehicle after first turning to the side to face out the door.

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Grab straps for back-seat users attach to the metal posts supporting the front-seat head restraints and extend horizontally to use when entering or exiting the back seat.

Be aware: The straps, especially those in front doors, should be put away after use to prevent the handle from moving while the car is in motion and possibly banging against the window or the passenger. And the straps will work better on some cars than on others, Davis says. 

Price: $10 to $20 for a front-seat version and $5 to $10 for the back seat, depending on brand, type and seller.

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spinner image swivel cushion in a car for those with a disability
Stander

Swivel seat

The lowdown: A round cushion that sits on the vehicle seat and rotates to ease the process of swinging feet into and out of a vehicle.

“The rotating cushion does go exactly to those points I was mentioning, letting people swivel into or out of the automobile,” Schall says.

For those who need only a little help entering or exiting the car, “simple turning cushions [are] great,” Churchill says. 

Be aware: Be sure to remove the cushion before driving off. It doesn’t attach to seats, presenting a potential danger if used while the car is in motion. 

“The swivel cushion makes it easier getting in and out, but it isn’t fastened down so it would be able to slide in an accident,” Davis says.

Price: About $20 to $60 depending on size, brand and seller.

spinner image The Turny Evo is a seat lift that will allow the user to get seated outside the vehicle, before being comfortably lifted to a safe position inside. Having the car seat completely outside of the vehicle and at a height of choice can be very helpful
Autoadapt AB

Turny seat

The lowdown: Sometimes called a valet seat, this device is installed in a vehicle to help people who use wheelchairs get into a seat. 

BraunAbility’s Turny Evo seat powers out from the car, lowers and rotates for easier transfer from a wheelchair, then raises and rotates into a conventional auto seating position.

It also can be helpful to caregivers who find it taxing to heft an individual into a standard car seat without aid, Davis notes.

Be aware: The turny seat replaces an existing seat. It’s not a simple add-on accessory. 

Price: Starts at about $10,000, depending on the seller, the vehicle in which it’s installed and the amount of customization needed.

spinner image woman rolls her wheelchair adapted by BraunAbility into a Chrysler Pacifica
BraunAbility

Ramps

The lowdown: Ramps are perhaps the most recognizable sign of a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. With a range of costs and options (side or rear entry? fold-out or in-floor? portable or built-in?), they involve serious choices about what best serves your needs.

Key considerations include how long you need the ramp to be and how much weight it will have to support — person and wheelchair combined. 

The choice between side and rear ramps can be particularly bedeviling. 

Using a side ramp often requires parking in a wide, handicapped-accessible space, or in a lot with sufficient empty spaces to provide room for the ramp to extend and the user to roll in or out, according to Freedom Motors USA, of Battle Creek, Michigan, a maker of wheelchair-accessible vehicles. 

However, side ramps allow a choice of where to put the chair and can be used on the driver’s side if the wheelchair user is still able to drive, the company notes.

Rear ramps can be less expensive and don’t present side-clearance issues, but they do require extra space behind the vehicle. They work well if more than one passenger uses a wheelchair, and in families where the kids can sit in back with the chair users. Rear ramps also can be wider than those that must fit a side door, allowing the use of a bigger wheelchair.

Keep in mind that it’s not just vans that can be “ramped.” Freedom Motors, Ability Center and other sellers note that trucks and SUVs also can host ramps, and that vehicles as small as the Kia Soul, a subcompact crossover SUV, have been converted to accommodate ramps. 

Be aware: Vehicles equipped with fold-up ramps (as opposed to in-floor ramps) surrender some passenger space. But fold-ups generally work better on higher curbs. 

Price: Manually operated, tote-around ramps can cost less than $100 and weigh as little as a couple of pounds. Longer, higher-capacity models run to around 70 pounds and can cost well over $1,000.

Automatic ramps vary widely, depending on type of ramp and modifications necessary for the vehicle. New vehicles with built-in ramp systems and lowered floors for easier access can run $40,000 and more.

Car features to make caregiving easier

If you’re looking for a new vehicle that sometimes will be used to transport a loved one with mobility problems to doctors’ appointments or physical therapy, here are some features to consider:

Starting out

• Keyless entry so the driver isn't fumbling with door locks and can pay more attention to the passenger

• Electric locks, windows and child-safety doors that allow the driver to control opening and closing and so a patient with dementia doesn't open a door unexpectedly

• Easy-to-access cargo space for walkers or wheelchairs and groceries. Vehicles with hands-free lift gates can save wear and tear on a caregiver's back.

Sitting down

• Higher seats to make it easier to get into and out of the car

• Adequate leg room — and space between the seat and door frame — to make swinging legs into the car easier. This is especially true if you want to transport your loved one in the back seat.

• Reclining front and back seats so users can lie back a little while swinging their legs in

• Electric seats to help a driver move the seat forward to provide more back-seat room

• Heated or cooled seats, depending on your climate. Remote start, which can allow a car to warm or cool before you start the trip, also is an option.

Transporting

• Hands-free navigation assistance for directions to new doctors or alternative routes when you’re stuck in traffic

• Apps and Bluetooth connectivity so you can have music that’s soothing to the passenger on the trips.

• Electronic parking assistance if you need to parallel park or deal with parking garages.As of May 2018, all new vehicles sold in the U.S. must have backup cameras, so make sure to take advantage of that feature to keep from backing over equipment you forgot to stow away.

— Amy Goyer, AARP

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