Man in wheelchair beside vehicle in a neighbourhood setting
Joel Dembe’s friend, Marcus Causton, is pictured next to his Tesla 3 that he purchased three years ago. Causton had to modify the Tesla to be operated using hand controls he purchased himself as Tesla offered no in-house accessibility solution. Photo: Joel Dembe

For Tesla to truly live up to its mission to accelerate the EV transition, it must ensure its products are accessible and inclusive. Surely, asks Joel Dembe, if Elon Musk can revolutionize space travel and modernize vehicle transportation, he can help people with disabilities, too?

Do you remember buying your first car? I do. It was overwhelming.

As a 23-year-old wheelchair user — the result of a spinal paralysis — I watched my friends drive either their parents’ cars or their own beaters. I was demoralized. Growing up in a rural community, the ability to drive a car meant one thing to me: independence.

After graduating and on the hunt for a job, it was finally my turn to take the plunge. The process was frustrating, especially factoring in the cost-prohibitive adaptive options for physical disabilities. Most adaptive vehicle conversions, especially when you need a power ramp or lift, can be upwards of $20,000 on top of the price of a new car.

Eventually, I chose a Ford SUV, almost entirely due to their Mobility Program for customers with disabilities. The program offered a rebate on hand-controls, alleviating some of the costs (typically $1,500 – $2,500). I was also given the option to test drive the vehicle with hand-controls, before buying.

Left in the dust

Which leads me to Tesla.

I find it ironic that the world’s most innovative and valuable car company, especially with its autopilot and self-driving features, has left millions of prospective customers with disabilities in the dust.

Unlike most North American car manufacturers, Tesla has no official mobility program for people with disabilities, nor does it offer any rebate for adaptive hand controls. You can’t test a vehicle using hand-controls. Likely if you ask many in Tesla’s massive network of sales representatives about potential vehicle adaptions, you would be met with a blank stare like I was. In fact, you might be better off getting a response from Elon Musk himself over Twitter, which actually seems to work in some cases. Aside from physical modifications to vehicles, Tesla does not offer robust software accessibility features on its cutting-edge dashboard display.

It’s the lack of any semblance of adaptive information that’s prevented many prospective customers with disabilities — including me — from actually making the move to a zero-emission vehicle.

But just getting into the driver’s seat isn’t the end of the story. Then special needs drivers have to contend with another accessibility challenge: charging.

Routine obstacles

Charging stations are positioned outside of office buildings and shopping plazas, community buildings and curbside, on-road and now off-road. But many of these stations are not available in wheelchair accessible parking areas and disabled users routinely faces obstacles in accessing them. Tesla is one of the few OEMs offering a dedicated highway charging network, but the Supercharger chain also has the same space limitations.

And while charging station accessibility isn’t just Tesla’s responsibility, it could be a leading voice on the issue. In Canada, it’s been exciting to see that BC Hydro, for its part, is making this a priority.

With the weekly barrage of Tesla software innovations, new vehicle announcements, and Musk himself seemingly leading the charge on breakthrough technologies for those living with a paralysis through Neuralink, overall it’s remarkable that there isn’t a Tesla mobility program.

It’s inevitable that a company growing at Tesla’s historic rate might not have everything in order, but the number of people living with disabilities is expected to increase and with Tesla’s competitors doubling-down on the EV market, the company must act to reach this slice of the market with urgency.

As for me, I’ve pre-ordered the CyberTruck. With the vehicle not expected to hit the Canadian market for many years, my hope is that the company will in that interlude offer some form of disability program to ensure I’ll actually be able drive the truck when it’s finally available.

Joel Dembe photo

Joel Dembe is a five-time Canadian National Wheelchair Tennis Champion and Paralympian. He’s also an ambassador for the Rick Hansen Foundation and Chair of Patron’s Council for the Canadian Abilities Foundation.

1 comment
  1. I have been advocating for this for years. Like you, I did not even receive an acknowledgement to my emails, phone calls etc to Tesla asking for help to at least tell me where hand controls could be mounted safely! I met with BC Hydro and they very quickly agreed that chargers must be accessible, and they now include accessibility guidelines in their charger installation designs. Now we need to convince the manufacturers of the chargers to make their design more accessible.

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