If you're one of the millions of drivers who rely on wheelchairs for mobility, you know you've got quite a few choices to consider when it comes to conversion vehicles. These days, sedans, coupes and SUVs may be converted to accommodate drivers with a wide range of mobility challenges.
And then, of course, there are full-size vans and minivans, which are the granddaddies of the conversion segment. Though they continue to be popular choices, they've been overlooked by some mobility-challenged drivers who prefer the trendier, more stylish look of certain sedans and crossovers.
Picking the right type of vehicle for your disability and your lifestyle is important. It's a decision that could have far-reaching effects on your health and your finances, and as such, it shouldn't depend exclusively on your feelings regarding a vehicle's image or appearance. For mobility-challenged drivers, function trumps form by a very wide margin.
Here are five questions to consider as you evaluate conversion vehicles.
1. How severe are your mobility challenges? The extent of your mobility challenges will play a major role in determining which vehicle type is the best match for your needs. For many disabled drivers who are able to get around without wheelchairs — and some who may rely on wheelchairs, but who have good upper-body strength — sedans, coupes or SUVs may be solid options.
Mobility-challenged drivers who aren't in wheelchairs will appreciate the accessible seat height offered by many sedans and coupes. And the AWD available on many SUVs can make for safer travels in rain and snow. But those in wheelchairs will want to keep in mind that seat height isn't an issue when you have a van's ramp to get you into and out of a vehicle. And if you frequently face rough weather, know that there are minivans (like the Toyota Sienna) available that offer AWD.
The main advantage to choosing a sedan, coupe or SUV is financial. "Those solutions are less costly compared to a fully converted wheelchair-accessible van," says Doug Eaton, president/CEO of Vantage Mobility.
Nick Gutwein, president of Braun, agrees. "It's a personal decision for the customer, and certainly someone with minor mobility challenges may fare well in a sedan. It's a decision for the individual, his or her family, and — we'd recommend — a decision made with the help of an expert at a mobility dealer. For individuals who have the necessary mobility to transfer, a specialty seat and scooter/wheelchair stowage lift can be a viable, less expensive option [than a conversion van]."
2. How important are practicality and convenience? Though they may be less visually appealing than other types of conversion vehicles, conversion vans and minivans offer superior practicality and convenience since they typically don't require drivers to hoist themselves from wheelchairs to seats. This isn't the case with many sedans, SUVs and coupes.
"Generally speaking, a minivan or van is more practical, particularly for those individuals in wheelchairs," says Dave Hubbard, executive director and CEO of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA), an organization dedicated to monitoring the safety and reliability of conversion vehicles. "[Drivers] do not have to transfer from a wheelchair to a seat, as they can drive from the wheelchair. Plus, the additional space is ideal. The wheelchair does not need to be broken down when storing in the vehicle." This makes transferring from wheelchair to vehicle not only easier, but quicker as well.
3. Are you shopping for both current and future needs? Many mobility-challenged drivers suffer from conditions — such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, etc. — that can result in diminishing strength and agility as the years go by. If you're one of these drivers, it's important to keep this in mind as you shop for a vehicle. Today, you may have the mobility to easily transfer to a sedan, but that may not be the case two or three years from now.
"We encourage our customers to consider both their present circumstance and future condition, as well," says Gutwein. "This is an investment in a vehicle, so be honest with what is needed not just now, but two, five, 10 years down the road. Will you have the same strength and energy level? If you travel with a caretaker, will they still have the ability to help you transfer and stow your wheelchair or scooter? These are the critical questions to ask when making this decision."
Also, keep in mind that while your disability may not be one that naturally worsens with time, it may be exacerbated over the years by the daily ritual of transferring from wheelchair to vehicle. "When you think about someone in a wheelchair transferring in and out of their chair multiple times a day to get in and out of a vehicle, it is taxing on the body," says Eaton. "With a wheelchair-accessible minivan, they can remain in their chair without having to transfer."
Gutwein offers a similar perspective. "It's important to recognize that, over time, the wear-and-tear of months, years, maybe decades of transfers can result in very serious injury to the shoulders. That's why we regularly hear customers say they wish they'd made the switch to an accessible van years ago. The only energy expended is to press a button, wait for the ramp to lower and then roll up and into your position. It's just that easy."
4. What's the weather like? It's important to consider how well-suited your potential new conversion vehicle is for use in your particular climate. Conversion vans have a key advantage over other vehicle types for those who regularly face rough weather, since they don't require the driver to get out of or stow the wheelchair.
"Think about severe heat, or blistering cold," says Eaton. "What about rain or snow?" With sedans, coupes and SUVs, "you are exposed to the elements that much longer when you have to get out of your wheelchair to transfer and then get your chair stowed."
5. Have you gotten the help of a qualified mobility dealer? It's impossible to overstate the importance of working with a qualified mobility dealer when deciding on a conversion vehicle. A mobility dealer knows the full range of options available to shoppers and is in a position to tell you which choices suit you best. This kind of knowledgeable guidance is essential if you hope to choose a vehicle that will serve as a useful companion both today and years into the future.
"Similar to a physical or occupational therapist, a mobility advisor will ask the right questions [and] take the right measurements," says Gutwein. "Based on what a customer's condition is and what they want out of their vehicle, they'll prescribe the best mobility option. It's an essential step to getting on the road to independence."
Eaton also believes that a mobility dealer is an important part of the mix, and encourages shoppers to do their due diligence when selecting a dealer. "We always recommend that customers physically visit the mobility equipment dealer: see their showroom, [have them] demonstrate their products and put faces with names."
This is important, since not all mobility dealers are created equal. Start by choosing one that has been certified by NMEDA. That organization offers certification though its Quality Assurance Program (QAP), the only nationally recognized accreditation program that ensures mobility dealers meet the highest standard of service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
QAP is based on the premise that consistent quality requires a systematic and documented approach. "The program was developed to elevate the level of dealer performance to reliably meet consumers' transportation needs in the safest manner possible," says Hubbard.
A QAP designation indicates that an enhanced vehicle modification or adaptive equipment installation is consistent with the highest industry standards. For example, QAP dealers are required to have certified welders if they perform modifications to vehicles, and to maintain records of all adaptive work. They're required to provide 24-hour service to their customers, and must abide by the mediation committee's decisions when a complaint is lodged by a consumer or a dealer. QAP dealers must also meet shop and facility equipment requirements, and have technicians who are certified for the equipment they sell, install and service.