A wheelchair van's ramp is the first point of contact between the vehicle and its owner, and serves as a frequently traveled bridge, guiding the wheelchair user to and from the van. It's an important part of the conversion-van equation, and yet it's one that remains little more than an afterthought for many buyers.
There are two kinds of ramps on the market: in-floor and fold-out. As its name suggests, the in-floor ramp retracts under the van's floor when not in use. As such, the ramp does not obstruct entry or exit when stowed. This isn't the case with a fold-out ramp. When not in use, this ramp folds to form an upright barrier that can obstruct rear passenger entry.
Each ramp has its strengths and weaknesses. Given how important this piece of equipment is to your overall driving experience as a wheelchair user, it's crucial that you make an informed decision. Here are six questions to consider as you evaluate ramps for your wheelchair van.
1. How important is it for able-bodied passengers to have easy access to rear seating? Do you frequently travel with able-bodied passengers in back? Is it important for these passengers to be able to easily access the second and third rows? The answers you give to these questions play a huge part in determining which ramp suits your needs.
The biggest difference between fold-out and in-floor ramps concerns how they're stowed when not in use. As we've mentioned, an in-floor ramp stows under the floor, while a fold-out ramp forms a barrier in the rear doorway that can obstruct access to the vehicle.
If you expect to frequently ferry able-bodied passengers in the second and third rows, an in-floor ramp is the better choice. The reason for this is simple: This ramp allows these passengers to enter and exit the vehicle without obstruction.
"First and foremost, it's out of sight, out of mind," says Mo Abusham, president of Better Life Mobility Center, a Riverside, California, dealership specializing in wheelchair vans. "When an in-floor ramp tucks away, it goes underneath the floor and doesn't take up any interior space. There's not that barrier there that you get with the other type of ramp for an able-bodied person, so you're able to go in and out."
2. Do you live in a climate with lots of rain and/or snow? If you live in a climate that gets lots of rain, snow or even falling leaves, these things will likely collect on your van's ramp when it's in use. If you have a fold-out ramp, you could find yourself with a pile of leaves or a puddle of rain or snow within the cabin, due to the way in which this ramp is stowed.
This makes an in-floor ramp a cleaner alternative for drivers who frequently face inclement weather. "Leaves and debris and snow can get carried into the van from the fold-out ramp as it folds back in," says Bill Brixon, a mobility consultant with Mobility Works, a Van Nuys, California, dealership that offers wheelchair vans. "You don't get this with the in-floor ramp."
3. Do you plan to use the van in an environment marked by tall curbs and steep gradients? Things like tall curbs and steep gradients can pose challenges when it comes to deploying your van's ramp. Of the two types of ramp, a fold-out is better suited for this kind of environment.
"The fold-out ramp tends to deploy in more areas," says Brixon. "If you get to a tall curb, for example, an in-floor ramp may not be able to go over it. A fold-out comes down on top. In some ways it's a more deployable type of ramp, and some people feel more comfortable with that."
4. How important is front passenger comfort? With an in-floor ramp, the person traveling shotgun has full use of the front passenger seat. However, if you choose a fold-out ramp, the front passenger seat's capacity to recline will be restricted once the ramp is stowed, since this ramp forms a barrier that physically limits how far back this seat can go.
This issue may not be important if you plan to use your van primarily for short trips. But if you plan to spend lots of time behind the wheel with a passenger riding shotgun, you'll want to give some thought to the comfort of the person traveling with you. With an in-floor ramp, "you're able to recline your passenger seat all the way," which can be a benefit for a long road trip, Abusham says.
5. Who's the manufacturer? By a pretty wide margin, the two leading ramp manufacturers are Braun and VMI. If a wheelchair van is on your shopping list, you'd be wise to limit your search to conversions made by these two industry leaders.
"Both Braun and VMI are the leaders out there of putting together high-quality products," Brixon says. "The investment in R&D and fit and finish is incredible. Also, both companies do a great job of listening to the people that they have moving the products for them, as well as the clients that own vans."
What's more, both these companies have seen tremendous improvements in product quality in recent years. "Over the last decade they've made strides in putting together a conversion that works better" and is more dependable, Brixon says. "The conversions are on par with the quality of products made by the chassis manufacturer."
Though both companies make first-rate conversions, VMI's in-floor ramp offers headroom and interior floor space advantages relative to the Braun product. With a VMI in-floor ramp (on a Toyota Sienna chassis), you get a door opening height of 57 inches, versus 54.2 inches with a Braun in-floor. And the floor length behind the front seat is 60 inches with a VMI in-floor ramp. With Braun's competing product, you get just 51 inches of space.
6. How price-sensitive are you? A ramp conversion is a big investment. A conversion on a new Toyota Sienna, for example, can run you between $23,000 and $28,000. Still, you can save money by making an informed decision, since there are price differences that are dependent on ramp type and manufacturer.
An in-floor ramp will cost you at least $1,000 more than a fold-out. And while Braun and VMI offer similarly priced fold-out ramps, VMI's in-floor ramp has a price advantage over the Braun product (in addition to the functional advantages mentioned earlier).
You can lower your conversion cost by making calculated choices. Finally, though, these savings may be outweighed by the convenience of being able to avoid the wait that comes with the conversion process by simply choosing from what's available on the lot.
For many shoppers, ready availability trumps cost. "The Braun product is more expensive, but that's not usually a factor," says Brixon. "A bigger factor is availability: which units we have ready to go."
If someone is looking for a van in Deep Cherry Red "and the only one on the West Coast is a VMI conversion, then that's what we're going to have," Brixon says. "Because it's a limited industry, we often don't have as much inventory as a regular car dealership to pull from, and that's a factor that can drive purchasing decisions."