Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wheelchair Vans

324816 010As I've written here before, I'm a lucky guy for so many reasons, and here’s another. Last month we mustered the financial resources to purchase a brand-new, 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan wheelchair accessible van, which is pictured to the right.

I'm sure many disabled people would love to be in my shoes, but simply can't afford something so expensive. Nevertheless, part of me is indignant about the whole thing. For the same amount of money that we spent on this glorified soccer-mom-taxi, a healthy person could've purchased any of the vehicles below.

2013 Audi S5 Premium Plus Quattro
2012 BMW Z4 Convertible
2013 Infiniti G Coupe
2012 Jaguar XF Sedan
2012 Mercedes-Benz E-Class E350 Luxury

2012_jaguar_xf_sedan_base_fq_oem_1_500But noooooo, I had to buy a minivan, and an SE model at that (no backup camera or in-dash GPS)!

All kidding and self-pity aside, this van will have at least as much positive effect on my life as any Jaguar does for its owner. I’m extremely grateful that I have a new wheelchair accessible van, but I am saddened by how many disabled people are not so fortunate.

It's woefully ironic that, on top of everything else, people with MS face increased financial challenges. For many, our ability to work is diminished or eliminated, and so therefore is our income. And on the other side of the ledger, our living expenses soar due to medical bills and disability accommodations (such as home modifications, mobility aides, and adapted vehicles). Those very same items that the disease necessitates us to acquire are the ones that our strained financial resources so often cannot afford.

What, exactly, constitutes a wheelchair accessible van? What do you get for all that money? There are several configurations, but the most common one involves taking a standard minivan and modifying it in the following ways.

First, the company making the modifications, which is not the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), removes the floor and installs a new floor that is between 11 and 14 inches lower than the original one. This is required to increase the headroom inside the van. This increased headroom is distributed in such a way that the vehicle is both taller than standard and has less ground clearance than standard.

Second, they install an automatic ramp system, usually in the passenger side sliding door, so that with a push of a button the door will open and a ramp will slide out or unfold.

Third, they modify the rear suspension so that the van can "kneel,” which means it literally lowers itself closer to the pavement when the ramp is extended so as to decrease the ramp angle and the effort required to climb it.

All wheelchair accessible vans also include a standard, manually operated, chair tie-down safety system consisting of straps, ratchets, and hooks. This prevents a wheelchair from sliding all over the place during normal driving, or more importantly, during an accident. But the system is cumbersome, and so many people, including me, take shortcuts – hooking up only one or two of the four straps for short trips, etc. I know. I'm bad.

Other than a few more tweaks to make this all fit in with the OEM chassis, that’s it. That’s all you get for your money.

The above modifications approximately double the price of a minivan. This means that a new wheelchair accessible van, depending on trim level, typically costs between $48,000 and $60,000, instead of $24,000-$30,000. This is just for the standard configuration with no additional disability-related equipment.

Many wheelchair users, however, require further modifications such as a six-way power driver’s seat, which makes it easier to transfer from a wheelchair to the driving position. This modification costs between $2500 and $3000.

Some wheelchair users require hand driving adaptations, which cost at least $1000 for the most basic setup, and can be much more expensive for advanced driving systems such as joystick controls.

Many users get around the cumbersome tie-down system by installing an EZ-lock wheelchair docking system, or similar, which greatly simplifies the entire process. This may be installed in the driver’s position, so that the user can drive the vehicle while sitting in a wheelchair. It may also be installed in other positions in the van where the user may typically sit in their wheelchair. These docking systems cost about $1800.

What prompted Kim and me to make this substantial investment? In 2010 she purchased a new Mazda 3 sedan. She loved the car, but only put about 5000 miles a year on it. She drove it to school, which was a short commute, and when she ran errands without me, which wasn't all that often.

A couple of months ago we asked ourselves why we were still a two-car family when we only had one driver (you can read here about my 2011 decision to stop driving), and when we now live so close to everything. We felt that it would make more sense to sell the 2010 Mazda 3, which we were making payments on, and the 2004 wheelchair van, which was paid off by this time, and purchase a new, wheelchair accessible minivan that would serve as our family’s all-purpose vehicle for years to come.

My 2004 wheelchair van is now for sale. If you're in the market, you can read about it here.

To Kim's credit, it was mostly her idea to surrender the beloved Mazda 3. Her only stipulation was that she be able to purchase a scooter so that she could still have some fun driving a vehicle once in a while. Here's a picture of Kim on her Vespa.



  1. Congratulations on your new van. While you are zipping around with your wife, just try to imagine that it's a Mercedes and not the very unsexy handicap minivan. While we are on the topic of unfair. The kneeling device breaks more often than it should, especially if it gets the wear and tear of snow. It is costly to replace almost $800. Mine is manufactured by Braun. You can do without it if you have a power chair or scooter to get up the ramp, but can imagine would be quite difficult if one is in a manual wheelchair. Love your wife's Vespa, very cute!!

  2. Wow, this makes the lift that puts my scooter into the back of my Scion look a bit pitiful. I too, bemoaned the car for a while--in my case it was the fact that I had a boxy, army green car that resembled something Eisenhower drove around in during WWII.

    But the scooter and lift fit and it was affordable Wouldn't you know it, I've gotten to love my big/little car,(looks little but big inside.) It's so much easier for me to get into than any other, because the floor is only 14" off the ground--a full 3" lower than the other car in the family.

    Lo and behold...mobility tops all the red sports cars and flashy convertibles of my dreams!

    Thanks Mitch, for reminding me how lucky I am today.

  3. I agree with you that it would be nice if we could spend the $$ on sports cars, etc. (My partner got a cute little Smart Car when I got my van, damn her!) That said, I am loving my new (used) w/c van. It feels wonderful to scoot on down the ramp outside my house and into the van, even when it's just to go out and get a little ice cream! If I had my way, everyone confined to a chair would have one of these vans. (Actually, if it were up to me, no one would be confined to a chair, but. . . .)

  4. anonymous,

    I rarely used my kneeling feature in my old van, because I have a power chair. I'm trying to decide if I'll use that feature in my new van or not.


    For people with MS, functionality is so much more important than aesthetics, isn't it?


    thanks for stopping by. Let's work on that "no one would be confined to a chair" idea of yours :-)

  5. Congrats on your new rides! Hope they bring you both plenty of happy miles.

  6. Time for a new van at our house, too. Congratulations on yours, even if it means you will have a newspaper route to pay for it. (Pre-dawn delivery in Maine? Nothin' to it!)

    I always suspected that Kim was a Wild Woman....a bike chick! Now she'll be changing her name to Blazette or something.

  7. Glad to see your having a fun ride with all your vehicles at hand. I saw a wheelchair type of van and it looks pretty amazing. Congratulations!

  8. I found a place that sells used wheelchair accessible vans in Arizona and it's made getting around much easier. It was reasonably costed as well.