Monday, April 18, 2022

ACCESSIBLE LIFE: What to Look For in a Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle

After thirty-plus years of using and adapting vehicles to carry Tim in his wheelchair, we may have learned a thing or two about what to look for when buying an accessible vehicle. Hopefully, these tips can be helpful to you when you're shopping.

When looking for an accessible vehicle, the first question is are you going to be the driver, passenger, or a little of both? This matters so that the driver's spot can be modified for you if you're going to drive. If you're not driving, you can save money by leaving the driver's seat just as it is.

Let's start off with'll need to have the seat removed (you can also use a removable seat so that others can drive, too, such as the Step and Roll seat) and, if the floor of the vehicle is lowered, you'll need to lower this part of the floor to the same level. Most of the time, the vehicle will be a van which you will probably enter via the back side door, or the back door, and roll into the driver's position.

You may need to have hand controls installed to operate such controls the accelarator, brakes, and maybe a knob for the steering wheel.

Your wheelchair will need to be strongly secured so it does not shift while driving. Four point straps are usually used for passengers but if you're an independent driver, these may be very hard to strap on yourself. You'd probably want to use an automatic docking system such as the EZ Lock.

If you're just going to be a passenger, you don't need to worry about those expensive driver modifications. However, all wheelchair users need to have a way to get into a van. That would mean either transferring into a car seat or having a way to wheel in and ride in your chair.

Transferring is pretty self explanatory, you get out of your chair, transfer into the car seat, and stow your chair. If you have the ability to do this, great. No expensive modifications for you. If not, you'll need a ramp or lift to get into your vehicle.

Photo courtesy of New York MTA

A ramp is more basic than a lift and can be manually operated or power operated. Ramps are nice because they don't need as much maintenance and are more reliable that a lift.

Depending on your needs, you can maybe get by with a basic portable ramp or an inexpensive installed manual ramp such as a Handiramp. More elaborate ramps can be powered and automatically fold and unfold into the side of your van...probably a minivan because ramps need to be close to the ground to work properly...or some stow and come out from under the floor.

Your other choice is a lift. This will be power operated and acts like an elevator to lift you and your wheelchair from the ground to the floor level of your van, where you can then roll in. These would normally be installed on a full-size van or other larger, higher clearance, vehicles such as a bus.

In the United States, the two main manufacturer of wheelchair lifts and ramps are Ricon and Braun. Lifts can come in flavors from basic to more elaborate folding lifts that allow access through the door when stored. Either way, they can be quite expensive going for more than $10,000.

Picture courtesy of ClĂ©ment Bucco-Lechat

Next, you will probably need to have your van modified by a certified body shop to either lower the floor or raise the roof, unless you are not very tall in your chair. For example, our son is 52 inches tall in his chair and the space from the floor to the ceiling in our previous van was 55 inches meaning he could ride inside without modifications other than the lift. He did have to lower his head to fit through the door, though.

The choice to lower or raise is up to you and your personal preference. We like a lowered floor because it means the van has the look of a normal van and will fit in places (such as a parking garage or car wash) where a higher raised roof vehicle would not.

The work required to do either lower the floor or raise the roof will also add $15,000 or more to the cost of your vehicle.

Lastly, you'll need to be secure while you ride. You can't just ride in your chair, unsecured, or you will be very unsafe in case of an accident. Wheelchair restraints are cables or straps that ratchet down to the point on the floor to keep you from sliding around while driving. Most also have a lap belt and shoulder belt so that you would be secure on 7 points...4 on the floor, 2 for each end of the lap belt, and 1 for the shoulder belt...keeping you secure in case of an accident.

In the United States, Sure-Lok and Q-Straint are the leading manufacturers of wheelchair restraint systems. Fortunately, this is one thing that isn't incredibly expensive. A restraint system can be installed in your vehicle for between $500-$1000.

With all these details in mind, now you can go to your local mobility dealer with a few buckets of money in hand and talk about the specific vehicle that is right for you. As you can see from above, it can be incredibly expensive for a new van...$80,000 is pretty common for a new Toyota or Honda minvan and maybe even a little more for a new Ford Transit van that has been modified for wheelchairs.

Of course, you can also buy a vehicle separately and have a mobility dealer convert your own vehicle.

You may be able to get a little help from your local department of rehabilitation or other social services agency (such as Regional Centers here in California) but don't count on it.

You can also save a lot of money by buying a used adapted vehicle.  A quick glance at ads for used vans sees them going for as low as $8,000 but know that the lower priced vehicles might have a lot of miles, wear, and tear on them.

Take your time and consult many dealers and other experts before committing. You can even rent a van before buying at most mobility dealers. Here are some resources for you:

Mobility Dealers (click on the links in the names)

Classified Ads

Darryl Musick
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