Disabled drivers on the move


Mobility transforms life for drivers with disabilities. Sandra O'Connell reports

People with disability who need a specially adapted car either as drivers or passengers are entitled to a number of tax concessions. These include repayment of Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) and Value Added Tax (VAT) paid on specially constructed or adapted cars.

These concessions are entirely a matter for the purchaser, and should have no bearing on the purchase process.

However, according to John Bennett, disability officer at UCD, the fear is that some car dealers may take the concessions into account when negotiating a purchase price. He is particularly worried that disabled drivers entitled to avail of these schemes may be offered lower than usual trade in values. He is currently pursuing at least one such case.

For his part, Derek Farrell, chief executive of the Disabled Drivers Association (DDA), has come across no such abuse of disabled drivers. His advice is that the caveat emptor (buyer beware) rule applies just as it does for anyone buying a car.

"Every buyer should shop around for the best price and, if one dealer is offering less than market value for trade-ins as a result of concessions from the State that are absolutely none of their business, they should not get the sale." The DDA's experience with the motor trade has, on the whole, been very positive, Farrell points out.

It has negotiated a series of discounts from major distributors, ranging from 3 to 6 per cent.

"The motor industry has been very good to our members. There are, however, rogue garages, just as there are very good garages. We advise members to shop around and go to at least three garages before buying."

Nowadays, thanks to specialist adapters around the country, very few factors limit the marques which disabled persons - as drivers or passengers - can choose. Malachy McElmeel, of Motability in Ashbourne, Co Meath, has been in the adaptation business for 35 years.

The business, founded by his father in 1950, has operations in Armagh. Each year he kits out up to 650 vehicles for the individual needs of disabled clients.

No two jobs are the same, says McElmeel. They can range from providing a steering knob to putting in a full set of hand controls for people with loss of leg mobility. The company can provide fully rotating seats, to allow for easier entry and exit, and can realign pedals so that all functions can be carried out by one foot.

"We try as far as is humanly possible to allow 90 per cent of our clients drive the car they want, whether it's a Mini or a Merc. The only time we might put pressure on them is if we reckon some model might cause them difficulty due to lack of height or the width of the door. For example, in most models the doors in a three-door version are wider than in a five door version."

Manufacturers are, he believes, becoming more disability friendly. Cars such as the Ford Focus and the Toyota Yaris are particularly good.

Some clients present enormous challenges - but the company never gives up. Motability recently kitted out a car for a victim of thalidomide who had no arms or legs. The vehicle - a VW Caravel - now has an electric tail lift which allows the driver entry and is operated by radio controls. All other functions have been built into a special panel on the driver's seat.

One recent client was less than three feet tall. Motability fitted an electric seat to provide a clear view and supplied button controls to reduce the effort required for power steering. A special lever system was fitted for both acceleration and brake functionality.

"When this man was 16 he was told he would never drive," says McElmeel. "I met him when he was in his 40s. After he had driven one mile to test out his new car, he broke down in tears. When we asked him what was wrong, he said he wished he had met us 20 years ago. He had been living with his two elderly parents and, for so long, had been marooned. The car literally changed his life."

The ethos at Motability is one of dogged determination to see clients drive - despite the obstacles. "My mother, who died last October, always told us growing up that there is no such thing as 'I can't', only 'I haven't tried hard enough'. That's how it is for us."