What Are my Options for Accessible Travel?

What Are my Accessible Travel Options?

Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle Travel Options

To assess the various available options for accessible vehicle travel, it's first necessary to evaluate your physical and psychological capabilities needed to drive. You should ask yourself a number of questions. To begin, decide if you will be a driver or a passenger in the vehicle.

I Will Be a Driver.

  • Can I handle the mental and physical stress and strain of driving?
  • Will I be able to transfer to a driver seat or will I need to drive from my wheelchair?
  • Will I need special modifications to operate the vehicle?

I Will Be a Passenger.

  • Will I be able to transfer to a car or van seat or will I need to ride in my wheelchair?
  • What are my preferences for seating position, comfort, and visibility?

While you may know the answers to most of these, acquiring the correct information to answer some of these questions will require the assistance of professional evaluators. Of course, your doctor and physical therapist will have input, but if you plan to drive the vehicle, the assistance of an adaptive driving evaluator is recommended.

What Will a Driver Evaluator Tell Me? 

A driving evaluator can be contacted through a rehabilitation center near you. Many major rehabilitation centers conduct complete driver evaluation programs that are certified by their state's department of motor vehicles. This includes a pre-driver evaluation, behind-the-wheel lessons, and assistance in licensing. Pre-driver evaluation includes testing:

  • Eyesight
  • Motor control
  • Judgment and reaction time. 

Driving programs stress that consultation with your physician is necessary to make sure that you are physically and psychologically prepared for the driving experience. If you are evaluated too soon after your injury, there is the danger of recommending too much equipment and, consequently, spending money on adaptive equipment you will not need in the future. After a traumatic experience such as a spinal cord injury, there is a great deal to relearn. Don't put too much pressure on yourself too soon, even if you feel that you might be prepared to begin right away. Most driver evaluation programs utilize wheelchair vehicles with hand controls and steering devices to instruct their clients. Most also operate a fully-modified wheelchair van for people who drive from their wheelchairs. Some driving programs including a lowered floor handicap van conversion, such as a BraunAbility side-entry vehicle.

After entering the mobility van, the evaluator can determine if you will drive from your wheelchair or from a power seat. A power seat base moves electrically into position next to you so that you can transfer more comfortably and safely. Generally, if you can transfer, you should drive from the van seat which is bolted to the floor. If you cannot transfer, an electric wheelchair tie-down can be added along with special stabilizing belts to secure you and your wheelchair behind the steering wheel. There are many different types of driving controls and assistive driving devices. These include hand controls for throttle and brake, extended steering columns to position the wheel at the proper height, low effort steering and braking, and modified vehicle switches. In a driver training wheelchair van, it may take a few sessions to fit this equipment to you. Once you have an evaluation from an instructor, you can begin to shop for a mobility van.

Finding a Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle Or Converting Your Current Vehicle 

Most driver education programs have a list of wheelchair accessible vehicle suppliers in your area. Or, you can find your nearest dealer here, or by calling BraunAbility at 1-800-THE-LIFT. Although not on every corner, there are more adaptive equipment dealers and more choices than you might anticipate. These companies will either give you options for accessible transportation by modifying a van you already own, or they may provide you with a complete modified wheelchair van.

Too often, people go to the local auto dealership and buy whichever car or van the auto salesperson recommends without considering whether or not it can be modified for their needs. The salesperson may think he or she has the best vehicle on the market, but generally does not understand the special needs of the customer or know any mobility dealers.

Due to the cost of conversion, the time spent doing your homework will ultimately pay off in savings. Extras, such as middle captain's chairs and front overhead consoles in vans, may go to waste if you purchase them from an auto dealer and then learn that they must be removed to convert the vehicle. Your BraunAbility dealer knows the van you purchase must have a suspension that is heavy enough to accommodate the weight of conversion, yet light enough to drive like a standard vehicle. A heavy-duty electrical system and factory-installed power accessories are important features to purchase on your van, too. And, because they understand which vehicles are most easily modified, your BraunAbility dealer often knows where to shop for the best buys. Some BraunAbility dealers also have demonstrators or pre-owned ramp vans that can be suited to your needs with little modification and purchased for a reasonable price.

Do I Want a Full-Size Van With a Wheelchair Lift or a Minivan With a Wheelchair Ramp?

In the past, a full-size van with a wheelchair lift was best suited to wheelchair and scooter access. These vehicles offer the greatest amount of interior space and may still be a better choice for sizable families or if you have a larger chair. However, they can be difficult to maneuver for some.  The lowered floor minivan with an automatic ramp has become a much more popular personal vehicle option for ease of access and superior handling. These vans feature a kneeling system that lowers the suspension to within inches of the ground, reducing the slope of the ramp for entering and exiting. Side-entry wheelchair vehicles let you sit in the front and see out of the van's windows. A discussion of the pros and cons of each ramp van with your BraunAbility dealer will help you determine which is the right choice for your situation.

What Type of Wheelchair Lift Do I Need?

If you choose a full-size van, the side-mounted lift is the most practical use of space, especially if you will be the driver. The rear bench seat can be retained, as well as the front passenger seat. Platform-style lifts typically require eight feet of access space at the side of the van, but a side-entry feature on some lifts will allow you to board the platform in tighter parking situations. When stowed in the wheelchair lift van, some platform lifts incorporate a folding platform that allows ambulatory access. Another solution is to mount a wheelchair lift in the rear of a full-size van, leaving the middle seat in place for ambulatory passengers and the rear of the van available for wheelchair access. Yet another option is the BraunAbility Under Vehicle Lift. This innovative wheelchair lift mounts underneath the side doors, stowing the platform in a weathertight compartment. This provides a completely unobstructed doorway with a full window view and greater interior space. You may want to consider this type of lift if you need free doorway access and more interior room for ambulatory and wheelchair passengers. As you can see, there are many different styles of wheelchair lifts available, and each has its advantages. Again, discuss your options with your BraunAbility dealer.

What to Tell Your BraunAbility Dealer

  • You should know how tall you sit in your wheelchair, measuring from head to ground. 
  • You should also know the overall length and width of your chair. If possible, use the wheelchair you intend to travel in when you visit your BraunAbility dealer. These dimensions will help your dealer determine the modifications you need. For example, the door height of a standard full-size van is about 48 inches and a minivan is about 44 inches. Knowing these heights and your height will tell the dealer whether or not you need a lowered floor or a raised door.

Don't be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Remember, it is easier to change at this stage than after the vehicle is built. When you visit the dealer, there should be some vehicles available for you to try out. This is an ever-changing industry, and new products are being introduced every year. Your local BraunAbility dealer will be knowledgeable about today's products.

  • You should certainly ask for references and to examine the work that the dealer has done in the past. 
  • Ask if they have any customers with a handicap van that is similar to the one you are planning to purchase. 
  • Ask about service and warranty programs, too. Be sure to compare the warranty's time period with the degree of coverage offered. Are all parts covered, or just the major components? 
  • Are they a part of a national dealer network, so you can have warranty work done anywhere in case of emergency? 
  • Have they, their sales representatives and their technicians attended a BraunAbility Service School within the last three years? 

This is a big investment, and the best way to make an informed decision is to be an educated customer. Read about these products and, if possible, attend trade shows in your area.

Paying for Your Wheelchair Van Conversion

A new wheelchair van, including modifications for your needs, can be an investment of $20,000 to $50,000. In some cases, you may be eligible for assistance. If you are a veteran, contact the VA. Your state's Department of Vocational Rehabilitation or Division of Developmental Services may also provide financial assistance. If you have private insurance, either health or workman's compensation, check your eligibility with your insurance carrier. Many automobile dealers can finance the mobility package along with your wheelchair lift van and provide you with a monthly payment plan at competitive interest rates. Your BraunAbility Dealer may know of other local sources as well. A doctor's prescription is accepted in most states to exempt the purchase of your adaptive equipment from sales tax. Consult a qualified tax accountant regarding any income tax credits. Additionally, several major vehicle manufacturers have rebate programs that help pay for modifications.

Are You Ready to Hit the Road in Your Wheelchair Van Conversion?

After you have evaluated all of your options for accessible travel, you are ready for the purchase. A wheelchair van must be custom-fitted to you, just like your wheelchair. With professional guidance, a good evaluation of your personal needs and research of the adaptive equipment that is available, your wheelchair lift or van purchase will be a learning experience that will lead you to an even more independent and productive lifestyle.

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