When it comes to adapted vehicles, the type of vehicle that typically comes to mind is a van. Not every single minivan or full-size van on the market is available for conversion but many of the popular vans are available. Conversion companies such as Braun, Vantage Mobility, and Freedom Motors may have exclusive rights to certain vehicles and/or specific types of conversions for certain vehicles. Some conversions are designed specifically to allow transport of the disabled passenger only while there are also others that are tailored to allow the disabled user to either drive the vehicle or ride as a passenger. It is important to determine what type of conversion is suited to your needs: this can be done by consulting your local mobility dealer. It is also important to purchase the vehicle from the mobility dealership and not a regular car dealership: in many cases, extra costs will be incurred if you purchase the vehicle from a regular dealership. Other conversions may also dictate that the vehicle must be new or be less then 5 years old and/or under 50,000 miles: your local mobility dealership will be able to determine whether the vehicle is deemed fit for conversion. Certain states may provide funding assistance for purchasing a conversion vehicle.
What Type of Vehicle Should I Purchase?
Minivans are some of the most popular conversions that are available. The minivans that are available for conversion are the Chrysler minivans (Dodge Caravan/Chrysler Town & Country), Honda Odyssey (2005-present), and the Toyota Sienna (2004-present). Ford and GM also have recently stopped selling minivans to consumers but there still may be a few converted minivans left at some mobility dealerships. With all of the minivan conversions, the floor of the minivan is lowered between 8-12 inches so that the wheelchair user sits at approximately the same level as the other passengers. Minivans are typically fitted with a ramp that will deploy from either the rear of van or from the passenger-side sliding door. These ramps are usually trouble-free and have an advantage when compared to their full-size counterparts: if the ramp doesn’t deploy on its own, they can be simply be deployed manually never leaving the wheelchair user stranded inside the vehicle. Kneeling suspension is also used in these minivan conversions to ease the angle needed for a wheelchair user to get in and out of the vehicle. In terms of having the wheelchair user drive, the minivan conversion that will have to be used is the side-entry conversion since the lowered floor needed for this conversion is large, running from the firewall all the way to in front of the rear suspension area. Since the floor on these minivans are lowered, the ride height of these minivans are raised in comparision to the ‘normal’ minivans by a couple of inches; despite this, many measures have been taken to ensure that these minivans perform just like the ‘normal’ minivans in all respects.
Full-size vans have a slight advantage in that, in some cases, they can be converted more quickly than their minivan counterparts. While it can take approximately 4-6 months to convert a minivan, it takes a fraction of the time to convert a full-size van. Since these vans are larger, they can accommodate larger wheelchairs or adaptive driving equipment that cannot be fitted in a minivan conversion. Full-size vans that are available for conversion are the Ford E-series vans, GM vans (Chevorlet Express/GMC Savana), and the Dodge Sprinter. Some of these vans may require a lowered floor but, unlike a minivan with its unibody structure, will require very little modification to the vehicle. Since full-size vans are much higher off the ground then a minivan, they typically use a wheelchair lift in order to get the wheelchair user in and out of the vehicle. The lifts used are similar to those used in school buses, commercial medical transports, and paratransit taxis. Because of its widespread use in commercial applications, the lifts are typically very reliable and should provide trouble-free service for the life of the vehicle. The only disadvantage that a lift may have over a ramp is that when the lift is inoperable and the wheelchair user is alone and inside the car, it can leave the user stranded unlike a minivan with a ramp. In terms of the vehicle itself, most of the original mechanical equipment on these vans are retained so there is little difference in terms of performance.
Other Conversion Types
If driving a minivan or full-size van is not preferred, there are some alternatives that are available. Freedom Motors have conversions for the Honda Element (2003-present), Scion xB (2004-2007), and Chrysler PT Cruiser (2001-present). All of these conversions with the expection of the Scion can accommodate the wheelchair user as the driver. The Scion xB requires that the wheelchair user transfer into the original driver’s seat. Another set of options are available from KVB Manufacturing in Ontario, Canada. This company created the Elaine-Anne wheelchair lift that is designed to be fitted onto the GM full-size truck/SUV platform that covers the following GM vehicles: Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra, Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon/Cadillac Escalade/Hummer H2, and the Chevrolet Suburban/GMC Yukon XL/Cadillac Escalade ESV. In addition, there are other companies that make similar lift systems to KVB. Although they can be fitted to other full-size platforms from Dodge and Ford, they are known to only be fitted for pickup truck applications. These conversions still retain all the 4WD/AWD capabilities and differ very little in appearance from their ‘normal’ versions. The main issue that one may have with these conversions is their lack of familiarity with mobility dealerships. The costs for these types of conversions are typically around the same as that of a minivan conversion.
What Else Should I Consider when Purchasing a Vehicle?
With whatever vehicle or conversion that you use, there are some things that should be decided upon when purchasing and converting a vehicle. Securement of the wheelchair is important as this provides the primary form of restraint for the wheelchair user.
Tie-down straps work effectively for securing wheelchairs. However, they cannot always be handled by the wheelchair user themselves. There are electronic wheelchair lockdown systems, such as the EZ-Lok system, that work very effectively in securing a heavy power chair. These type of systems are tested to keep the wheelchair in place in an accident and are subjected to the same Federal crash testing. While expensive, they allow the wheelchair user to secure the chair easily and quickly without the use of tie-down straps. Even if one purchases a van with an electronic lockdown system, it is always handy to also keep a set of tie-down straps inside the vehicle for an emergency.
The other thing to carefully consider is auto insurance coverage. Auto insurance companies provide coverage for the conversion and adaptive equipment. However, when obtaining coverage, make sure that the coverage you get covers the entire conversion. With some auto insurance companies, there are two types of coverage: ‘handicapped equipment’ coverage and ‘special equipment’ coverage. ‘Handicapped Equipment’ coverage only covers basic equipment such as the ramp/lift: it does not cover the lowered floor, kneeling system, lockdown system, or any of the adaptive driving equipment. ‘Special Equipment’ coverages covers the entire conversion in all respects. It is important that when you apply for auto insurance coverage for your converted vehicle, you send the insurance company the list itemizing all of the changes done to the vehicle for conversion. This list can be obtained from the mobility dealership performing the conversion or your local state agency. While the insurance costs are high for these types of vehicles, it is worth every penny, should an emergency occur.
What are the Benefits of Driving?
The privilege for any disabled person is the chance to obtain their driver’s license and drive a vehicle. Driving gives the person a sense of independence that is greater then one has ever imagined. It gives a person the opportunity to essentially blend in with society and become like any other driver on the road. While it is extremely difficult to go through the process of evaluation, testing, and learning to drive and then enduring the process of obtaining a vehicle suited to the driver, the freedom and independence gained is worth all the hassle. While the process varies from state to state, the information here provides a brief idea about the process of getting evaluated for driving.
How do I Obtain a Driver’s License?
The first question that is always asked (and answered) first is ‘Can I drive?’ The evaluation process is typically done through a driving school that is specifically dedicated for the disabled, which can be found through your local hospital or state vocational rehabilitation agency. During the evaluation process, an instructor will come out and meet with the prospective driver and place him/her in the driver’s area of a vehicle. Through a series of tests and checks, the instructor will determine whether the perspective driver is physically capable of manipulating the controls that are available, visualizing the area behind and beside the vehicle, and has the reaction time and reflexes to respond to an emergency that could occur when driving. If the instructor determines that the perspective driver is capable of operating a vehicle, then the instructor will grant authorization to start lessons and, if state-funded, notify the proper state agencies.
Lessons begin by determining the final setup for driving controls, which can range from variety of hand controls, horizontal steering wheels, etc. This is accomplished fairly quickly since this is determined from the evaluation session. Once the prospective driver has a setup that is comfortable, the driving lessons continue as any other student driver. The number of lessons needed is the same as the normal state laws for new drivers; with some states requiring 50 hours of drivetime before attempting the driver’s license exam, it is not unusual for some driving schools to offer all-day sessions. Driving lessons such as these are expensive, typically running at the rate of $120-$200 per hour. Once the prospective driver has completed their required hours, the instructor will take them to the local DMV for their driver’s license exam.
Once the driver passes the license exam, the instructor will write up a prescription which will dictate the equipment required by the driver. Dimensions of the driver sitting on the chair are also taken; in some cases, this can affect the vehicle that the driver can use since space is needed to accommodate the driver, chair, and the adaptive equipment. The prescription will then be sent to proper state agencies who will send it to a qualified mobility dealer. This part of the process varies from state to state so it is recommended to check with your state agency to determine how they handle determine the shop that will handle the conversion. Some states will have been known to dictate the vehicle and the conversion since some states will provide funding for the entire conversion and part of the vehicle: if you want a particular vehicle that is different from the one specified by the state, you may have the pay the difference in cost for both the vehicle and the conversion required for the vehicle.