How does a person with a disability buy a car? Thoughtfully

Purchasing a car is stressful. Doing so as a person with a disability comes with its own set of challenges.

The first time around, I was fresh out of driver’s training and clueless about cars. I let those around me take care of the details, and my driving instructor picked out what he thought was the best car for my situation.

I’m going to put this out there — I have loved not having a car payment for 11 years. You can ask anyone who knows me, purchasing a new car took years. I asked my friends, I searched with people, and got advice from others with physical disabilities. My car was always a topic of conversation.

That’s because I knew the inevitable would happen.

One last drive

It was a beautiful Saturday in early November, and I was itching to get out of my house. Because of COVID-19, I’ve been working from home since March and in general limiting my time around others for health reasons. I had no place in particular in mind, but knew with winter coming the chances of having a beautiful driving day were going to be few and far between.

I took a drive through Allegan County via scenic M-89. It was the way my mom took when she’d shuttle me to and from college. I drove with the windows open and music playing.
Lucia Rios in front of her 2021 Hyundai Venue.
My silver 2004 Saturn went up and down hills, and through the turns flawlessly. As I was driving back, leaving the city of Allegan, it slowly started to lose steam. I pulled off the side of the road, and it wouldn’t move at all. I knew it was gone.

Making a game plan

Losing my most trusted mode of mobility — next to my wheelchair — was frustrating. However, I had 16 good years with it and, as my sister reminded me, it was hanging on by duct tape. Purchasing a new vehicle was necessary for my lifestyle. It provides independence and is essential to my career.

However, I had to prepare before I could make any sort of purchase. I had to identify what did work in my current car and what I would need in a new one.

Because I am short, I need cushions to get at driver level. How many will I need with a new car? Should I go with a car closer to the ground so I don’t have to jump into the front seat?

I need hand controls. The ones in my current car were 16 years old. Can they be installed into my new car, or do I have to buy new ones? How much will that cost? Do I go with a brand that has a mobility reimbursement program? For example, when I purchased the new Saturn, I qualified for General Motors to pay for hand controls through its mobility program. I saved $700.

I lift my own wheelchair in and out of the car. I was used to “suicide doors” which are hinged at the rear. Was this non-negotiable? I’m not paralyzed, so I am able to stand for short periods of time. Can I handle regular doors? Do I need any other adaptations? What would the cost be?

Car shopping

Unfortunately, some of these questions could not be answered until I found options. My nephew Michael offered to take me car shopping. I had searched online, made calls to dealerships, and settled on my top option.

Some salespeople were more helpful than others in regards to my specific situation. I don’t know if it’s fear of the unknown, lack of awareness, or if the way I was presenting my needs was too daunting of a task.
Lucia Rios is pictured with the team she worked from start to finish of buying her new car (from left: Jayden Engster, Junior de la Rosa, and Caryn de la Rosa)

All I knew was I felt in over my head and needed someone who knew about cars and would treat me with respect. I needed someone willing to think outside the box.

My family has known Junior de la Rosa for years. We went to the same high school and grew up around the same people.
Through the years, when I’d ask for recommendations on who to talk to about a car purchase, Junior’s name came up quite often. He’s a salesman at the Elhart Automotive Campus. I had heard great things about Elhart and, through a freelance gig, was able to work with their marketing team.

I reached out to Junior. I told him I had a unique situation and was looking for someone I trusted and to help me through the process. I asked if he had ever worked with someone with a physical disability to purchase a car. He said no, but that he was up for the challenge and wanted to learn.

I knew he was my guy.


I told Junior I wanted a reliable car to get from point A to point B. Nothing fancy. He searched and narrowed it down to two vehicles. We set up an appointment for me to see them. He told me I could even practice putting my wheelchair in the car.

Lucia Rios decided to donate her old car to the Make a Wish Foundation.
When my nephew brought me to the Elhart Hyundai building, the first thing I noticed was a small SUV parked in the accessible parking spot without a placard. I was like, wait a minute, but then I noticed how cute it was. I told my nephew that I wished I could drive a car like that.

Junior introduced me to Jayden Engster, who brought the first car option around for me. It sat low like my Saturn and was difficult to enter and exit. The next option worked better for me. I was feeling indifferent about the cars, though, so I asked if I could try out the small SUV we had seen in the parking lot.

It sat higher, so I was concerned I couldn’t lift myself onto the seat, especially with cushions. But I did it with ease. Once inside the vehicle, I was told about the technology — a backup camera, side mirrors with blind spot detection, bluetooth capabilities, lane assistance, and so much more.

I was amazed. But keep in mind, I drove a 2004 vehicle for 16 years. All these new enhancements would make driving so much easier. My nephew took us for a test drive.

I decided the 2021 Hyundai Venue in Galactic Gray was the best choice.

Junior introduced me to his wife, Caryn de la Rosa, the finance manager. Caryn walked me through the financing process and worked to get me the best deal. When I found out I needed new hand controls, and that Hyundai does not have a mobility program, she was able to include the $1,500 expense into the loan.

My team from Elhart went above and beyond in making sure I felt supported — answering my many questions, dealing with my frustrations with the hand control process, and just engaging with me to find out more about who I was as a person. They took the car to Grand Rapids for the hand control installation and drove it back. I got red carpet treatment the day I arrived to take it home.

Meeting the needs

As far as my specific needs, I don’t need as many cushions because my driver’s seat can go up and down. The hand controls, though new, are familiar. And I now have a few different options for moving my wheelchair in and out of the car. One option is to put it in without taking it apart. I like that I have variety and more car space for passengers.

I’m proud of my purchase and the help I received during the process. I’m better prepared for the next time — hopefully not for 16 years, though. I realize my experience may require some additional forethought and include challenges, but one thing is certain, disability or not, the car-buying purchase is quite the experience.
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