man with white hair sits in wheelchair in front of a red car. Another man, with "volunteer" written on his T-shirt is pushing the chair.
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While some health conditions prevent disabled people from driving, many others don’t.

What disabilities prevent driving and which don’t can be surprising.

There are many accessibility features available today to allow wheelchair users and people with other mobility limits to drive despite their presumed inability to do so.

There also are many advances in automated driving and smart car features that the possibility of self-driving cars keeps coming closer and closer to reality.

Some conditions make driving a non-option, while others make driving an option only on occasion.

If you cannot drive, or choose not to(I decided that driving wasn’t worth the effort due to how my Functional Neurological Disorder expresses), you also should be aware of whether or not you need to ride in the front seat.

While I prefer to sit in front, on a good FND day I can ride in the back with reasonable comfort, but I’m highly aware that that’s not the case for everybody.

When you think about car travel, what are your rules or limitations, and why do they exist?

Recognize your limits

If you drive, be sure you know your own limits – how far can you comfortably drive, or what limits your ability to drive. 

For example, my partner Al and I have learned through him very slowly increasing his driving range that driving for more than 45 minutes or so straight becomes risky and severely uncomfortable for him. 

He has constant pain in his left hip, but the pain can and will spike under certain stresses, such as sitting, standing, or walking – especially for longer periods of time. 

Around the forty-minute mark or so the level of pain he is experiencing becomes so distracting that it’s harder for him to stay focused on his driving. 

On occasion, he’ll push that limit a little, but he does not plan to drive anywhere that would take an hour or more, and for the most part, he keeps his driving as local as possible. 

If we need to travel further than that, Al plans on being the passenger or splitting the drive with somebody traveling with us.  

If you don’t drive and you may need to sit in the front seat where you have more leg room, and a wider range of vision.  Most conditions which can cause nausea or dizziness , and many balance-related problems are likely to be set off by being a passenger in a car, but the front seat is often an easier ride than the back. Also, many conditions that affect circulation or muscle cramp-related issues may be minimized by having more legroom.

Car modifications so you can drive

There are a variety of modifications that can be made to your car(or a new one) to allow you to drive even if you couldn’t drive the average car.

This is especially important for wheelchair users or people with limited usage of limbs normally used for driving.

The downside, of course, is that these modifications are generally expensive, and often needed around the same time as you are dealing with other expenses, like medical care and/or home modifications.

Modified vehicles are also generally used for as long as possible since they are expensive and challenging to replace.

If you are managing mobility challenges but want to drive, it may be well worth exploring this option – the freedoms that come with being able to drive yourself can be many, and it’s always good to know what your options truly are.

left side holds a picture of Alison gazing levelly at the camera.  To the right, white text reads "Medical care decisions feel overwhelming?" and in smaller brown text "Click here to learn about my medical care coaching".  The far right of the banner holds the Thriving While Disabled logo

Thinking about where in the car to sit

If you can’t drive, then you need to figure out where in the car is most helpful or useful for you to sit.

Sitting in the front seat is helpful for Al but not utterly essential.  Being in front lets him more easily stretch and adjust his legs to find a more comfortable position. 

I prefer riding in the front for similar reasons, as well as when my movement symptoms get bad, I run the risk of slamming my body forward. I also have found that controlling the temperature in the car, or being able to direct cool air to my face is helpful if I start to get symptomatic or nauseous.

In the back seat, I’m almost guaranteed to slam my face into the headrest or back of the seat in front of me, where in the front seat, it takes more violent movements to slam into the dashboard or glovebox, and it’s almost impossible to do so if I move the seat all the way back.

Be aware of where in the car you feel comfortable, and what your options are.

My sister *needs* to sit in the front seat when she travels.  She has back pain issues, but more importantly a lot of vestibular, balance, and nausea issues. 

For her, riding in the front seat of the car is the only way she can really travel, and even then, she needs frequent breaks along the trip. 

She and her wife live outside of Philadelphia, and while driving to my mother’s home takes less than two hours, my sister cannot make the round trip in one day, and generally visits for at least three full days to give herself recovery time. 

In some cases, you’re generally going to sit in the front seat anyway(if you primarily are only traveling with one person), but being aware of your own comfort and limitations can be helpful for planning ahead and anticipating future needs.

Sometimes you are required to surrender your license

While having a disability generally doesn’t automatically mean that you can’t drive, there are certain conditions that automatically disqualify you from driving.

The example I’m most familiar with is seizure disorders. If you have had a seizure in the past year or two(depending on the state), you are not allowed to drive.

My sister temporarily lost her driver’s license for that reason, as a doctor reported her as having had a seizure, even though the movement issues she had may not have been one.

It took her an extra year or so to sort things out. Since then, she experienced a second brain injury and no longer drives.

If you recognize that your symptoms or condition are impairing your ability to drive, proceed with caution. Getting or maintaining a license under false pretenses isn’t a great idea.

left side holds a picture of Alison gazing levelly at the camera.  To the right, white text reads "Medical care decisions feel overwhelming?" and in smaller brown text "Click here to learn about my medical care coaching".  The far right of the banner holds the Thriving While Disabled logo

Sometimes not driving is the right move

Think about what your symptoms are, and what sets them off, and how severely your symptoms may interfere with your driving.

The reason I don’t drive is because of how my symptoms work. 

I live in New Jersey, which is the most densely populated state in the country. 

That means there are a lot of roads.  And a lot of cars on the roads. 

Driving in New Jersey is nearly always a stressful experience, and there is a high likelihood of being in an accident that includes more than one car. 

Everybody who owns a car is legally required to have insurance. 

New Jersey is also a no-fault state, which means that when you are in a car accident, *your* insurance pays for *your* care, though of course you and your insurance company can go after the responsible party for the accident for reimbursement.  

Why I don’t drive

In my case, FND is very sensitive and responsive to stress. 

Any time I pass certain stress thresholds, my movement symptoms kick in  – and generally are as disruptive as possible. 

My subconscious does not recognize driving as a dangerous activity(unlike climbing stairs, which was correctly assessed as potentially unsafe), and so, even if I am in good mental and emotional shape before I get into the car, the act of driving is likely to increase my stress to the point of being symptomatic. 

The symptoms I have had while driving have included: legs stamping on the floor(preventing me from choosing to press or not press the brakes and/or accelerator), arm slamming into my chest, rocking forward with such force that my head hits(or nearly hits) the steering wheel, my hand forming a fist and slamming downwards onto the gear shift repeatedly, and my hands uncontrollably tightening around the steering wheel so I cannot let it go or shift my grip. 

These didn’t all happen at once, but each time I tried to drive again, my symptoms have been severe while driving. 

picture taken from the passenger seat of the car.  The windshield and wiper are visible in the foreground, but the focus of the picture is a multilane entrance to a car tunnel into a mountainside.
I’ve learned over the years to enjoy my role as a passenger and make the most of it.

The even more challenging part is that whatever activity I’m trying to do or go to is likely to fatigue me or increase my stress level(again happiness and excitement are also stressors that increase my symptoms) – and so even if I manage to drive over to the location safely, it’s unlikely that I will be in good enough shape to drive myself home afterward. 

If I can’t drive home, that means I need to get picked up, and have my car picked up – which generally means at least two additional drivers need to come to me to help me get home. 

Having two people available who can drive and take time out of their busy schedules is often much more challenging than finding one person willing to drive me to and from the things I want to go to(or for me to take public transit there and/or back). 

I have had a lot of times where I fantasized about driving again, but at this point, I am comfortable with my decision and acknowledge that while driving helps make trips more efficient, the effort and stress management involved in me safely driving around is a lot, and I would rather invest my spoons in other activities, like working on this blog, learning new things, and really enjoying the events I do go to. 

I also live in an area with a decent public transportation system, and live near enough to NYC(which has a large(though often inaccessible) public transit system) that I can go up there easily enough and have the freedom to know I can go pretty much anywhere in the five boroughs on public transit.

left side holds a picture of Alison gazing levelly at the camera.  To the right, white text reads "Medical care decisions feel overwhelming?" and in smaller brown text "Click here to learn about my medical care coaching".  The far right of the banner holds the Thriving While Disabled logo

Making travel by car easier with a disability

There are a few things that can make car travel easier when you are disabled. The first is having an accessibility placard and/or license plate. I go over the process of getting one in my saving spoons post.

By having one of these, you can park in the accessible parking spaces, and be that much closer to your destination.

This is especially useful when you are dealing with fatigue or mobility issues(or both) and those extra steps can really make a difference.

Also, the process of recognizing what triggers your symptoms(or symptom increases) will help you to better recognize your own limitations in travel.

As you better understand your body’s limitations, you become better able to manage or reduce the challenges or better anticipate your needs.

My sister, for example, knows that she doesn’t travel well, so she plans her trips with built-in recovery time(coming up a day or a few hours earlier than she needs to, so she can rest before activities begin) and full awareness that they’ll be stopping multiple times along the route.

It also may be possible to make adjustments to your car(or purchase a replacement car) with a higher-placed body(so you don’t need to bend as much) or more legroom, or other alterations that make you more comfortable as a driver or passenger.

For some disabilities, cars that can more easily fit their mobility devices(such as vans) may be necessary(those alterations may also be expensive), while for many conditions there really isn’t an alteration that will help.

The better you understand your condition and your long-term prognosis, the better you can plan for managing your transportation needs. You deserve to travel in as much comfort and safety as possible, and I hope this post helps you to get there!

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  1. I also have vestibular issues, same as your sister, and find it incredibly hard to sit in the back seat. The increased motion makes me feel dizzy and nauseous very easily.

    1. That makes perfect sense! I hope you speak up for yourself and ensure that you ARE in the front seat as much as possible. It’s the right accommodation for you!!

  2. Great post with helpful tips and awareness points as always, Alison. Thanks for sharing both you and your loved ones’ experiences with travelling with chronic pain and other issues!

    1. Thanks Sheryl! I think speaking from personal experience is so vital, while recognizing the challenges others face. I only intimately know my own challenges, but can extrapolate some from what I observe.

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