Which Hand Controls Are Best for Wheelchair Drivers?

October 25th, 2021 by

If you have a physical disability that interferes with your independence, you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four Americans have some type of disability. Nearly 14% of those individuals have severe difficulty walking or climbing stairs.

Having a physical disability may be keeping you from driving, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Many solutions can modify a vehicle so an individual with a physical disability can drive safely and comfortably. For example, if you have lower limb dysfunction, hand controls enable you to operate a vehicle efficiently, empowering you to get back into the driver’s seat.

Are you ready to explore hand control options? If you’re interested in buying an accessible vehicle or converting your current car, we’re here to help you make the right choice. Let’s look at the different types of hand controls for driving and how they work.

What Are Hand Controls for Disabled Drivers?

Hand controls are a type of assistive technology that enables drivers to operate the brake and gas pedals without using their feet. These vehicle modifications give individuals with physical disabilities freedom to get behind the wheel. For use in most vehicles, you can choose between various options. Each choice caters to a specific need, so it’s essential to browse each one so you have a full understanding of what’s available.

How Do Hand Controls for Cars Work?

Though there are various types of hand controls, they all typically require the driver to operate a lever mounted to the vehicle below the steering wheel. Hand control equipment can go on the right or left side of the steering wheel, depending on the user’s needs. The lever connects directly to the gas and brake pedals. 

Usually, the driver will use one hand to operate the lever and the other hand to control the steering wheel. Drivers may wish to have a knob attached to their steering wheel to make one-hand steering easier. It all depends on their needs.

Different Hand Control Options

The different types of hand controls available work according to their names. For example, with push/pull hand controls, you’ll push toward the steering wheel to accelerate. Alternatively, with the push/rotate style, you’ll twist the control bar to hit the gas.

Hand controls can be either mechanical or electronic. Most on the market are mechanical, meaning they require the driver to use a lever to brake or accelerate. On the other hand, electronic controls require less effort, and the driver may use them either with mechanical levers or independently, depending on their needs.

Here are both categories of hand controls on the market so you’re aware of your options.

Mechanical Hand Controls

In general, a mechanical system needs levers, linkages, gears and other parts to function. Like any mechanical system, mechanical hand controls consist of several components that work together, such as a handgrip attached to two different rods, one rod connecting to the brake and the other to the gas pedal. 

The driver uses the handgrip to control the rods in a push/pull, push/rock, push/right angle or push/rotate style. Almost all mechanical hand controls require the driver to push the lever to brake. Because there are many options, you’ll want to read through each kind to ensure you know what’s out there.

Here’s more about the different hand control styles and how they work:

1. Push/Pull Hand Control

The push/pull style is one of the most common types of hand control designs. The driver pushes the lever toward the floor to brake and pulls the lever toward the steering wheel to accelerate. Depending on your preferences and the amount of space in your car, you can install the control on the right or left side of the steering wheel. You can also choose a vertical or horizontal handlebar, depending on your needs. 

The advantages of a push/pull hand control include:

  • Easy operation, with the option to use both hands while driving
  • Suitability for individuals with limited finger dexterity
  • Affordability

2. Push/Rock Hand Control

Using the push/rock style, the driver pushes the vertical handlebar forward to brake and pulls the handle toward themselves to accelerate, creating a rocking motion. With a compact, vertical design, this type allows for various hand positions and enables the driver to accelerate while steering with both hands. For example, the driver can accelerate by placing the bottom of their hand on the control handle and pulling it towards themselves, which frees up their fingers for the steering wheel. 

Overall, the benefits of a push/rock hand control are as follows:

  • Requires light gripping 
  • Takes up little space
  • Reduces hand fatigue

Like the push/pull style, push/rock hand controls are simple to operate.

3. Push/Right Angle Hand Control

With the push/right angle style, the driver pushes a horizontal handlebar down toward their lap to accelerate and moves the handle forward to brake. This style allows drivers to use the weight of their hands to maintain their driving speed, meaning they can enjoy a more relaxed hand position and use the steering wheel at the same time. Push/right angle hand controls can also function with limited space, ideal for a compact area. 

You might choose the push/right angle style for the following benefits:

  • Reduces the amount of knee room needed
  • Enables a relaxed hand position
  • Allows greater contact with the steering wheel

Some drivers may find it easier to push down toward their body to hit the gas, but it’s ultimately up to you and what you prefer. 

4. Push/Rotate Hand Control

To picture how the push/rotate style works, imagine a motorcycle throttle located on the handlebar. As with a motorcycle, you’ll twist the horizontal handlebar to accelerate. To brake, you’ll push the handle toward the dashboard. The push/rotate style, also called push/twist, also features a small lever projecting from the handlebar for better hand support. 

vehicle conversion company can install the handlebar on the right or left side of the steering wheel — whichever is most comfortable for you. 

It’s helpful to test out each side before you make a decision. This way, you can ensure each drive will be as easy and smooth as possible.

The benefits of a push/rotate hand control are below:

  • Allows plenty of legroom
  • Doesn’t require the driver to hold the handle back to maintain speed
  • Perfect for small spaces

If you love the thrill of riding a motorcycle, you might enjoy the push/rotate hand control style in your vehicle.

Electronic Hand Controls

Advanced customized electronic solutions are available to help individuals with limited finger dexterity, strength or range of motion drive comfortably. For example, one option is a digital acceleration ring that gets mounted to the steering wheel. With this device, drivers accelerate by gently pushing on the ring, braking using a hand lever located to the side of the wheel. The digital ring allows effortless driving and lets individuals keep both hands on the steering wheel.

If a driver cannot use a regular steering wheel, they might opt for a small electrical wheel they can control with one hand. Using their other hand, they can perform electronic acceleration and brake control. Drivers with limited range of motion and strength in their arms and legs might also choose a fully automatic joystick system. With this system, the driver uses a joystick to control driving tasks, including steering, accelerating and braking.

Electronic controls make for easier driving in general. However, they cost more than mechanical systems, which means they might be out of your budget. Some options, like a joystick system, also take longer to learn. The best control for you depends on your needs, so be sure to think about your ability so you can make the right choice.

If you’re looking for a more affordable hand control option that offers an effortless driving experience, consider talking to a mobility specialist about power-assisted controls. These controls require less strength and make it easier to operate regular hand controls. With power-assisted devices, you can expect less hand fatigue and more comfortable driving for long periods.

What Type of Hand Control Is Best for Your Needs?

Since every driver has unique needs, it’s essential to meet with a certified driver rehabilitation specialist before purchasing a vehicle with hand controls or converting your current car. A driver rehabilitation specialist will perform a complete evaluation, assessing your strength, coordination, flexibility and other skills to recommend the best adaptive technology for you. They can also let you test the different options and suggest the best type of vehicle for your needs. Your doctor or local rehabilitation center can help you find a specialist when you’re ready.

You might also contact a mobility specialist at an accessible vehicle dealership. Either way, it’s always smart to consult an expert to aid you in your search. To help you make the right decision, a qualified mobility specialist might consider factors such as:

  • Strength: Hand and arm strength are essential factors in choosing a suitable hand control system. Considering strength can also help you decide whether to get a left- or right-side control. For example, if you have sufficient strength in your left arm, a specialist might recommend a push/pull style. If you need technology that requires less strength, they might suggest power-assist controls. 
  • Finger function: Your finger functioning can help you choose the correct hand control style. For instance, if you’re looking for a hand control that doesn’t require finger dexterity, you might find that the push/rock style works best for you.
  • Space: A mobility specialist will consider the type of vehicle you drive and how much space is available for adaptive equipment. If there’s limited knee space, they might suggest a push/twist hand control. 
  • Comfort: What type of hand control feels most comfortable to you? Do you prefer a twist motion to accelerate or does a push/right angle style feel more natural? Ensure the location of the hand control suits you. 
  • Medical condition: You’ll want to select a hand control that works for you now and in the future. If you have a progressive condition, a mobility specialist can help you choose a hand control system that’ll accommodate you over time. Similarly, if you have an injury affecting your current driving abilities, plan to pick a system you can easily remove or modify after recovering.

Whatever your needs, you can likely find adaptive technology available to meet your requirements and keep you driving, whether in your car or a new one.

Are Certain Vehicles Limited to Specific Hand Control Options?

Although most vehicles with automatic transmissions, power brakes and power steering can have hand controls, you’ll need to consider the type of vehicle you drive before installing a specific style. Not all vehicles are compatible with all kinds of hand controls, so you have to think about your car and the type of controls you want. Additionally, not all vehicles can be converted so the wheelchair user can drive from their chair; or converted to include a power transfer seat. A mobility specialist will ensure you select an option that works in your vehicle. 

Can Someone Else Drive a Vehicle With Hand Controls?

In general, anyone can drive a vehicle that has hand controls safely and comfortably. Most hand control systems don’t block the pedals, turn signal lever or other components. However, you might add custom devices that can affect another person’s ability to drive your vehicle. For example, a mobility specialist may recommend you install pedal blocks with your hand control system.

Pedal blocks are devices that cover the gas and brake pedals and prevent the driver from accidentally operating the pedals. They come in various styles with different release mechanisms, so you can remove them when needed. If you share a vehicle with a spouse, family member or friend, ensure they know how to remove and reinstall the vehicle’s pedal blocks before and after using your car.

Common Reasons Someone Might Need Hand Controls

Anyone who’s experiencing difficulty driving due to a physical disability can benefit from hand controls. For example, individuals with the following conditions might be interested in hand controls if they’re experiencing dysfunction in their hands or feet:

  • Spinal cord injury
  • Neuropathy
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscular dystrophy

Someone who had joint fusion surgery or a lower extremity amputation might also need hand controls to help them drive safely.

Even if you don’t have a specific diagnosis, you might consider installing hand controls if you’re experiencing any of the following in your legs or feet:

  • Strength loss
  • Sensation loss
  • Impaired coordination
  • Loss of range

No matter what’s preventing you from using your lower limbs to brake or accelerate properly, a mobility specialist can help you find adaptive equipment that’ll keep you independent.

Contact Our Mobility Specialist to Determine the Best Hand Control for Your Needs

Today’s drivers face a vast range of options regarding hand controls for wheelchair drivers, from straightforward mechanical devices to high-tech electronics. Manufacturers continue to innovate and offer advanced solutions for various budgets, allowing more drivers with disabilities to drive independently and efficiently.

If you’re ready to get back behind the wheel, we’re prepared to help. At Freedom Motors, we’ll gladly convert your car or customize a wheelchair-accessible vehicle from our inventory with hand controls that meet your needs. Contact us today to speak with a mobility specialist and determine the best solution for you.