Tips for Buying a Car with Chronic Illness or Disability

I started this year out with a bang–quite literally. I was in a car accident in the first week of January that totaled our car. Not exactly the start I would have liked… While it was unfortunate, it provided us with the opportunity to shop for a car that really met our needs, and specifically my needs, as it was the first car we’d purchased since I became ill.

The process of browsing and test driving was actually eye opening for us, and it made me want to share some of the things we took into consideration as we shopped. If you have chronic fatigue, pain, mobility challenges, or other debilitating symptoms, you may want to keep these things in mind as you shop for your next vehicle, as well.

Vehicle Access

In the time between the crash and our car purchase, we were fortunate to be provided with a rental car by our insurance company. It was a low, 4-door sportsy model (which, after having driven a small SUV previously, seemed especially low). The seats sat extremely low to the floor and that, coupled with the all-around lower profile of the vehicle, made it really hard for me to get into and out of the car. I found myself throwing my legs over the side of the seat and using the door handle and seatbelt to hoist myself up. It was painful and difficult, and not something I wanted to have to do daily. So, vehicle height and access were at the top of our list as we shopped!

Most lists of “Best Cars for Seniors” (which, in all honesty, also means best for us in the spoonie/disability community) cite SUVs as the best. And if you have back pain, difficulty bending, or other challenges, the comfortable height of an SUV seat can be very helpful. Like I said, my previous car happened to be a small SUV, and our family vehicle is as well. But they aren’t the only options.

We watched for cars that had nice wide doors that were easy to maneuver. Seat height was important, both for getting in and out, and for driving with my legs in a comfortable position. An adjustable seat was ideal, since I could raise the seat to just the right height for me. We also tried to look for cars with some support to lean on getting in and out, whether that was a handle or a sturdy dashboard.

Keep in mind that height requirements vary depending on your individual needs. As I mentioned before, if you have back pain or difficulty bending, you might want to choose a car that sits a little higher off the road. On the other hand, if you have knee pain that makes climbing up into a vehicle difficult, or if you are a wheelchair user, you may want to consider a car that sits a little lower, at a comfortable transfer height.

In the end, we opted for a compact vehicle that was sturdy and comfortable to get into and out of, with wide enough doors, and an adjustable seat height (incidentally, one of the things that sold me on our car was a video posted by a wheelchair user who reviewed the model and found it really usable and comfortable for someone with a disability).

Another helpful feature is keyless entry. Rather than fumble with my keys and the dexterity needed to manipulate the locks and ignition, I can keep the fob in my pocket as I approach the car, and then just press a button to start. A physical key wouldn’t have been a deal breaker for us, but it’s a nice added feature that saves me just that little bit of energy for something more important.

Adjustable Features

I’ve already discussed the importance of adjustable seat height in our search, but honestly, adjustable everything was also at the top of our list: seat height, steering wheel position, mirrors, controls, etc. This wasn’t just for the sake of being able to customize things to our preferences, it was to make things workable for me on both good days and bad days.

I tend to experience a lot of fatigue and numbness in my hands and arms when I’m driving for long stretches of time, especially if my arms are outstretched to reach the steering wheel. At the same time, I’ve been in cars that were so tightly packed that the space around the steering wheel feels cramped and uncomfortable. We really wanted to find something that allowed me to adjust the position of things to a comfortable place (which may change from day to day) to minimize strain and fatigue during driving.

Depending on your particular limitations, it may be helpful to note the other adjustable features in a vehicle you are considering, such as lighting, displays, radio/interactive features, safety features, etc. For example, the car we chose gives us the option to dim or brighten dashboard lighting, to make it easier to see (or to minimize light/eye strain with migraines). The radio and navigation are all touchscreen and can be customized based on what I use most, to minimize distraction and maximize visibility. The seatbelt height can be adjusted for optimum comfort. And there are features throughout the car that can be adjusted and customized to make them as workable as possible.

Touch screen controls are also really helpful for those of us with issues with our hands, such as pain or limited use of our fingers. Knobs and dials require more dexterity and fine motor skill, which can be challenging. A touch screen puts everything you need within easy reach, with just the touch of a fingertip.

Handling and Driving

The handling of the car was also very important to us. In the past, I had a car with very stiff steering. I liked the solid feel of it back then (and even the workout it provided), but current me would have struggled to manage it on a daily basis. We wanted to find a car that was responsive and solid, but without major energy expenditure on my part.

The pedals always present a challenge, as well. Different cars are built differently, and the pedal position and firmness can make a big difference over time in my energy expenditure and pain levels. For example, cars with pedals that sit higher off the ground require the driver to lift their leg or keep it suspended just a bit while driving. For most people this isn’t an issue. For me, though, it’s a major issue. The exertion and sustained position tend to cause my legs to shake and wear out, and my knees to ache. We were very careful about choosing a car with pedals that sat a little lower to the ground and weren’t overly stiff, so I could keep my heel on the ground and pivot my foot without applying too much force to the pedals.

I absolutely love driving a manual car. It’s just so much fun! When I worked night shift for several years, we intentionally bought a manual car for me to help me stay more alert on my drive home in the mornings, and I enjoyed it so much. We test drove a manual model of the car we wanted in this search, too. It was such a fun little car to drive! I think I was smiling the entire time. But… It didn’t take long to confirm what I was afraid might be true of a manual car: it was really, really exhausting to drive. The constant need to press the clutch and shift gears meant more energy expenditure. At one point, we were stopped at a red light on a hill for several minutes. The sustained clutch/brake position, especially with the added pull of gravity on the hill, was really painful for my knees and legs. By the time we returned to the car dealer and climbed out, my legs were like jelly, and we came to the sad conclusion that a manual car just wasn’t the best option for my daily drives.

Visibility and Safety

Visibility is another big challenge. It can be difficult to crane your neck or turn, sometimes, to see well. Some cars have extremely small windows or narrow windshields that make it almost impossible to see! Our rental car was one of these, so visibility was also on our list of features to check out when we shopped.

One of the things I love about the car we bought is that, in addition to great windows and windshields, it comes equipped with some cameras. Back-up cams are fairly standard now on most vehicles, but since we hadn’t yet purchased a vehicle made this side of 2007, it’s new technology to me. I especially like this feature, because we have young neighbors on either side of our home. I love the extra assurance that no one has darted behind my car or left a toy at the end of the driveway.

Our new car also comes with a right side camera that is enabled when I turn on my right turn signal. It gives me a great view of my blind spot on that side and ensures there’s nothing in the way without having to turn myself around in my seat to look (although I still turn to look out of habit).

Other features to look for are different levels of headlight strength to help with impaired night vision, adjustable visors and screens to block sunlight, adjustable mirrors, and rear windshield wipers. On their own, all of these might seem like small details. But together they make a big difference if you have even small vision impairment, difficulty seeing at night, or brain fog/mental challenges.

Especially with my car crash fresh in our memories, we also wanted a car that was safe. At the very minimum, we wanted front and side air bags and good safety ratings. In addition to those, we were able to find a car with great safety features such as lane departure warnings, self-adjusting high beams, adaptive cruise control, and several other safety features and warning mechanisms. While I don’t advocate driving without a clear mind, it does give me peace of mind to know there’s some built in assistance for me on the days when my brain is on the foggy side or when I’m struggling with fatigue. I’ll always remain attentive, but built in safety measures help keep me that little bit safer.

Another factor that may seem vain on the surface is the car’s color. I never would have taken it into account had it not been for our previous experiences… Our family car, as well as the car that was totaled, were a light bluey-grey color. While they were great at not showing dirt, we didn’t consider the fact that they are almost the exact color of the road, the sky, an overcast horizon… All of which render the cars almost invisible, even with headlights on. I cannot tell you the number of times other drivers have pulled out in front of us, cut over into our lane, or come dangerously close to hitting us– it seems like far and away more often than they ever did in our previous cars of different colors. So I had one firm requirement in our car search: no bluey gray vehicles.

Along those lines, if you live in an area with especially high temperatures or high number of sunny days throughout the year, and if heat affects you negatively, it might be worth considering a car in a lighter color, such as white. I grew up in Spain, and almost everyone there at the time drove white cars simply because they tended to reflect the sun and remain cooler (especially in those days, before most cars had air conditioning). In those climates, I would especially avoid darker colors such as black or dark greens and blues, which tend to get much hotter in sunlight! We ultimately did buy a black car, but in our part of the country our summers are relatively short, and a windshield screen should keep things cool enough for my purposes.

Storage Space

One of the things in the video review that sold me on our car, other that seat height, was that the wheelchair user in the video demonstrated how easily he could store his wheelchair in the trunk, with room to spare. We’ve always carried a cane for me when we’ve travelled. But recently we went on a trip without my wheelchair, only for me to crash on a day we were slated to tour a museum. We waited almost 45 minutes ro rent a wheelchair and had to pay for it–and I had a perfectly good chair sitting at home! We determined then that we would never travel without it again. So, finding a car that could accommodate my wheelchair plus luggage was an important factor.

Obviously a van, truck, or SUV would easily provide the room for a wheelchair and everything needed on the trip. But we also wanted something small and fuel efficient. The car we found actually makes great use of space in general. We have three teenagers, who can all ride in the backseat with leg room to spare. The front seats are roomy and comfortable, and it has great headroom even when I have the driver seat at the highest setting. The trunk, too, is much larger than I would have expected for a compact car! The back seats can fold down in different configurations for added trunk room, but even with the seats up, there is a ton of space.

Overall Comfort

One review of the car we bought talked about how uncomfortable the driver found the seats. She said they were firm and hugged her body in a way that was almost painful. So we were on high alert when we test drove! While I do understand the comment she made (the seat sides come up a little on our legs, and they’re definitely on the firm side), I actually found the seats helpful. We’d test driven some cars with really soft, squishy seats. The lack of support was murder on the back and hips, and made it almost impossible to hoist myself out of the seats! In my particular case, a little on the firmer side is better.

The upholstery on the seats was a factor for me, too, and not for cosmetic reasons (although I do love the pin striped door panels on our car!). Our family SUV has leather seats. They’re great for transferring in and out of the car, since the low-friction surface makes it easy to turn and swing my legs out of the car. But the temperature of the leather is almost always an issue for me–freezing cold in the winter, and hot and sticky in the summer. Temperature extremes are generally an issue for me, and can trigger me to flare (especially cold), so it was one of the considerations we made when buying. We ended up with a car with fabric upholstery and, although I don’t have seat heaters, they’ve proved plenty warm in the thick of winter (incidentally, if you have hip, back, or leg pain, you might want to consider a car with seat heaters. I tend to use them in our family car for pain as much as for warmth, and it’s the one thing I’ll miss in the new car).

With all of that, here is the car we ultimately chose: a 2019 Honda Fit (also sold as Honda Jazz in other countries). Small, compact, fuel efficient, fun, and it ticked all the boxes when it came to my particular needs. Meet Pip, our newest family member!

The author, wearing round black glasses and an orange sweater, leans against a black Honda Fit, a compact black car. The car is seen from the front and right passenger side, parked in a paved driveway. Single family homes and trees are seen indistinctly in the background. Photo credit: Livable by Design

There are so many factors to consider any time you are buying a new vehicle–make, model, reliability, mileage, price, safety, reviews–even without factoring in the requirements specific to your particular health needs. Ultimately, the things you need will differ from other buyers’ needs. It might be helpful to make a list of your top priorities and non-negotiables to make sure the car is workable for you. With a little patience, and some careful consideration, it’s possible to find something that not only gets you where you need to go, but doesn’t cost you physically in the process!

2 responses to “Tips for Buying a Car with Chronic Illness or Disability”

  1. This is such a helpful article. I’m currently not allowed to drive due to cardiac syncope, but you’ve addressed so many important considerations. I have a (older model) Honda Civic and I always found it to be pretty accommodating to my needs. I’m so glad you found a good “Fit” for your needs. 😊


    • Thanks so much. I never realized how much there was to consider –until I had to consider it! We’ve had great experiences with Honda in general (and great pun 😉).


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