Q. Do you happen to know if it’s legal or OK to supply your own portable hand controls for use when renting cars? I have heard of people saying that’s what they do, but I have tried more than once and was refused the car rental — they said I could not use my own hand controls. I wonder if not letting them know and using them anyway is a good idea. This is an important issue to me because I use a manual wheelchair and can transfer into most types of vehicles without assistance. But I do need hand controls to drive, and I have them installed in my personal vehicle. I am also independent in other aspects of my life, so running into these roadblocks is especially frustrating. I travel across the continent quite frequently as part of my job, and this is just one of many problems I have encountered with rental car agencies when I arrive at my destinations. Even though that may seem like no big deal to some folks, it can completely take away my independence and ability to visit our rural offices or attend important meetings without renting an Uber or similar rideshare, limousine service or some other form of paid transportation.
Lately the list of excuses that rental car companies use to explain away their inability to supply me with an accessible vehicle has gotten even longer, as many new models of cars supposedly will not accommodate standard hand controls. On a couple of occasions the rental car agencies have claimed that, even though they had the hand controls at that office, they had to wait for a vehicle that would work with their hand controls. In the meantime I was stranded at the airport, searching for other alternatives. All of that occurs despite the fact that I always make advance reservations and make it clear what type of vehicle with hand controls I require. Are there any laws covering these failures to provide hand controls? Am I expecting too much? What can I do about it?
— Stuck at another airport
A. It is probably not a wise idea to install your own hand controls without the knowledge of the rental car company — I can envision a potential problem if you simply rented the car, then had someone drive it around the corner out of sight where you could install hand controls yourself, but got in an accident later. That would probably negate whatever coverage you had from either your private insurance policy or what the car rental company supplies. The rental car agencies have gotten very careful about what they will and won’t do when it comes to renters who have disabilities, especially if they need hand controls. Making an advance request to use your own, installed by their technicians, is always a possibility, but the major car rental chains likely have policies against using anything but the equipment they supply. They might argue that their company could face some type of legal liability if you supplied hand controls that later failed while you were driving, even if they had been installed by the rental car agency.
NEW MOBILITY and our parent organization, United Spinal, have heard from several other travelers who use wheelchairs and require hand controls in the vehicles that they rent. They have also faced similar problems with new vehicles that will not accommodate hand controls due to the required knee bolster air bags; there is a shroud where the hand control rods would normally run to the foot pedals.
The type of hand controls that many car rental companies use has two metal rods extending from the hand control mechanism to the gas and brake pedals on the floor of the vehicle, and there is no clear space remaining for those rods to fit in newer automobiles. There are other types of hand controls that might work, even with that configuration, but they can be more expensive or require more technical knowledge to install than the rental car agency technicians currently receive in their training.
Rental car companies are classified as public accommodations since they sell or rent goods and services to the public. They must comply with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in some states there are also similar state civil rights laws that mirror the ADA. Since new vehicles will continue to be equipped with air bag assemblies under the steering wheel, it appears that rental car agencies and others who install hand controls will need to take whatever steps are necessary to make vehicles with hand controls available to the customers who request them. That might include purchasing the type of hand controls that are compatible with those vehicles and training their technicians in the proper installation of them.
As you might imagine, there have been several complaints filed with the Department of Justice regarding rental vehicles and customers with disabilities. The DOJ can take action against subjects of ADA violation complaints, which may include civil action in a federal court, but its primary goal is to eliminate the recurrence of those violations through arbitration or mediation. For information on settlements reached and how they may apply throughout the industry, visit the DOJ’s ADA website. In some cases, settlement agreements have specified that the companies may require advance notice, and longer notice at smaller locations, but they still need to supply a vehicle with hand controls upon request. Situations which might excuse them from that obligation are also listed in the settlements.
If you continue to encounter problems, it is important that you file a DOJ complaint. Without a record of multiple complaints, DOJ cannot assume that these violations are a pattern or practice within the industry. You may also be able to, in those instances where there is an applicable state law, hire an attorney and sue in a state court. State civil rights laws may allow the payment of an award to the plaintiff and attorneys’ fees. You can check that out through the state’s National Disability Rights Network office or a knowledgeable attorney. I hope this helps, and that your next trip has no delays related to hand controls.