Accessing America: A History of Driving with Disabilities

Accessing America: A History of Driving with Disabilities

Accessing America

Americans have had a love affair with automobiles since their invention, but when automakers designed vehicles for the masses, they rarely considered the disabled community. Disabled Americans fought for access and actively redesigned personal forms of transportation such as the automobile. In doing so, they redefined their identities, reshaped the automobile, and changed the public’s perceptions of people with disabilities.

In the opening decades of the twentieth century, automobiles provided unprecedented personal mobility, but persons with disabilities were largely confined to their homes due to a lack of accessible vehicles, and obstacles in the built environment. In recent decades, adaptive technology and universal design have expanded the accessibility of personal automobiles, increased access to public spaces, public transportation, employment, recreation, and provided the thrill of the open road. This essay is a story of technological innovation, but the heart of the narrative is about persons with disabilities gaining the ability to drive their own vehicles and being empowered to work, run daily errands, drop their children off at school, and enjoy cross-country vacations.

The earliest mass-produced automobiles often rolled off the assembly line as unfinished products meant to be customized. Many owners and enthusiasts modified their vehicles to suit their personal preferences for style and function with aftermarket accessories and homespun gadgets. People dealing directly or indirectly with a disability took these modifications a step further by redesigning the passenger compartments and controls of their vehicles to accommodate their specialized needs.

A major theme in the history of adaptive mobility equipment has been that innovation historically happened outside of the mainstream automobile industry. This trend began in the early twentieth century and persisted well into the twenty-first century. Since the advent of the automobile, persons with disabilities and those close to them have modified vehicles to accommodate their particular circumstances. Persons with disabilities, like other automobile owners, redesigned their vehicles through persistent tinkering. In the early 1900s, at-home inventors and tinkerers in garages modified steering wheels to accommodate their residual limbs or prosthetics and invented hand controls to operate early cars with three pedals without the use of their legs. During the first half of the twentieth century, the polio epidemic and two world wars rendered many disabled Americans incapable of driving with conventional controls. During the post-World War II era, auto manufacturers like General Motors and Ford modified vehicles for wounded veterans and eventually disabled civilians, but due to a relatively small market and legal liability concerns, America’s major automakers had largely abandoned automotive adaptive technology by the 1960s. However, there was a continuing need for auto mobility in the disabled community. Much in the spirit of early tinkerers, the second half of the twentieth century saw the birth of the high-tech mobility equipment industry grow from small businesses operating out of workshops and garages. Most often, persons with disabilities or people inspired by disabled family members and friends started these businesses. As technology steadily advanced, persons with more severe disabilities, such as quadriplegics who must drive from a motorized wheelchair, gained the ability to drive and used adaptive automobility to access the promised personal freedom offered by the automobile.