9 Ways to Adapt Your Car for MS

by Linda Rodgers Health Writer

When you have MS, trouble seeing, muscle spasms, and weakness make it tougher to drive, says Marisa McGinley, D.O., a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis in Cleveland, OH. And flares can leave your legs temporarily numb. “As patients enter a more progressive phase, they can have more accumulation of disability that could affect many functions, including driving, prompting questions of ‘Do I need rehab?’” Dr. McGinley explains. That’s when it’s time to talk to a driving rehabilitation specialist about changes to your car.

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Don’t Let Fears Get in Your Way

A driving rehab specialist is a specialized occupational therapist who tests your skills. “An MS driving evaluation is for the driver to understand what has changed and what are the strengths we can bank on? How can we take advantage of every strength there is to keep you on the road?” explains Elin Schold Davis, O.T.R./L, practice manager for community access and driver initiatives for the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). After the evaluation, they’ll recommend new car equipment, if you need it, and teach you to use it. Some adaptations they may suggest include:

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Hand Controls

Hand controls let you operate both pedals with one hand rather than a foot, which may get too weak to push down safely.

How they work: One hand operates a lever, either on the left or right side, that’s attached to the steering column. “Usually, you're pushing forward to brake and back for gas. So you're doing both gas and brake with one hand and steering with the other,” says Terri Cassidy, O.T., a certified driving rehabalitation specialist in Colorado Springs, CO. They’re game-changers, and most people pick up driving with their hands quickly, Cassidy notes.

spinner knob
Margaret Karcher via Flickr

Spinner Knob

Steering with one hand is easier if you have a spinner knob, especially if your hands are stiff or spasm.

How they work: Spinner knobs look like door knobs and attach to the steering wheel. Your hand holds the knob and spins the wheel that way. “It makes these tight turns in a parking lot a lot easier,” says Cassidy. Press the release button and the knob comes off if someone else drives the car.

Handy Bar
Courtesy of Stander

A Handy Bar

Think of this as a portable grab bar that helps you get out of the driver’s seat, especially if you have an SUV or a low car.

How it works: The handy bar is about 9 inches long and weighs less than a pound. It fits into the U-shaped bolt on your car door so you can grab the easy-to-grip ridged handle. You don’t have to modify your car in any way to use it. “It can be really helpful getting up or down, just giving you stability and something to push on,” Cassidy says.

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Ruby Slipper

This is another not-too-spendy item that makes it easier to get in and out of the car when you don’t have much leg strength, says Cassidy.

How it works: Fasten this double-layered seat cover to the car seat so it’s secure. You pull the top layer towards the door and then sit on the edge of the seat. The layer moves with you so it helps you swivel easily into the seat.

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Blind Spot Mirrors

“If somebody has trouble with trunk rotation or looking over their shoulder, extra mirrors may be helpful in terms of safety,” says Cassidy. These can include an extra-long rear-view mirror as well as ones to add to side mirrors.

How they work: Most blind spot mirrors stick on to the car’s side mirrors, and give you a wider view of what’s behind you. Some have better optics than others, and all are inexpensive. “Like everything, mirrors are only good if you use them,” says Cassidy, who says they require a bit of training.

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Seats That Swivel Out

When climbing up into your van or SUV becomes impossible, these specialized seats do the job for you.

How they work: Push the remote button, and the seat swivels, comes out of the van, and lowers to your level for easy access. These seats are good for drivers and passengers, so when you ride instead of drive there’s less wear and tear on caregivers who don’t have to lift you in, says Davis. That way, “your vehicle can support you as a team, to stay more independent,” she adds.

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Wheelchair Lifts

If you’re wheelchair bound, you need two types of equipment. One is the lift to get your wheelchair in the van, whether you are a passenger or driver.

How they work: These automated lifts slide out and down with a push of the button. They can be installed for the side of your van or the back. Again, they can save caregivers the wear and tear of lifting the wheelchair and stowing it themselves, says Davis. Downside? They’re not cheap, averaging between $3,000 and $5,000.

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Wheelchair-locking Devices

If you’re going to stay in your wheelchair to drive (or ride shotgun), you’ll need to keep it steady. These restraints keep the chair from moving around.

How they work: There are two types of locking systems. One is a docking device that uses a pin to lock the wheelchair into place when you scoot behind the wheel (or passenger side). The other type uses manual (and retractable) tie-downs. Needless to say, your car will have to be specially outfitted so you can use the wheelchair instead of the seat.

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Handicap Placard

This is a tag that you hang up in your car that allows you to park in handicap spaces, which are closer to entrances. Even if you walk with a cane or walker, parking far away and having to walk to the store can be difficult, says Dr. McGinley. “So, I think that it's a reasonable discussion for MS patients to have with their providers,” she says.

How they work: Usually, your doctor will sign a form that you take to your local city hall or DMV for the tag. A temporary tag typically lasts up to 12 months, while a permanent tag lasts up to five years.

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Think of Your Car as a Confidence Booster

“I end up talking to people a lot about this adjustment to disability—why it’s sometimes a barrier for not coming in sooner,” Cassidy notes. “In my mind you are winning if you can still drive your kids to school; it doesn't matter how you're accessing gas and brake. But I know there can be a stigma there in terms of people saying, ‘I want to keep using my legs because that means I'm the same me.’” But Cassidy says these adaptations can be fantastic for your confidence since driving can represent freedom.

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Finding Ways to Pay for These Changes

Outfitting your car isn’t cheap, but you may be able to get some funding through the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation or another organization for MS patients, Cassidy suggests. One option for people looking to buy a new (or new to them) car: Talking to the dealer. “Most of the car manufacturers will do like a thousand-dollar allocation toward a modification,” says Cassidy. So it’s worth your while to negotiate with the dealer. After all, every bit helps.

Linda Rodgers
Meet Our Writer
Linda Rodgers

Linda Rodgers is a former magazine and digital editor turned writer, focusing on health and wellness. She's written for Reader’s Digest, Working Mother, Bottom Line Health, and various other publications. When she's not writing about health, she writes about pets, education, and parenting.