Now that we have had our modified minivan for a number of months, we made a list of things that may be helpful for others to know before making a similar purchase. We share the information not to influence a purchase one way or another, but to inform and prepare potential buyers. Most of this seems like common sense, but this is a complicated purchase that involves more information and emotion than buying a regular vehicle.
- Preparation. Do internet searches and consider these options:
- Where will wheelchair user sit (driver, front seat passenger or middle area)?
- Rear entry or side entry ramp for wheelchair?
- What make/model, features and color do you prefer?
- What make/model can you afford?
- Would you qualify for federal, state or local resources to help pay for the van? If you are a military veteran, have you checked with the Veterans Administration?
- Check for government grants.
- Inquire about assistance from national and local disease support organizations.
2. Price. While the cost of these vans is daunting, it is helpful to think of the price in two parts: (1) the price of the van itself, and (2) the price of the modification. While the price of the modification is normally not negotiable, the price of the van may be. Do your homework by looking up the value of the make, model and year of the van on www.kbb.com and/or www.truecar.com and negotiate that price if possible. There are add-on items in the cost of the van that can be negotiated as well (see below) – ask that they be included at no additional charge (be sure this is written in your contract). The cost of the modification portion of the vehicle is tax deductible if the total of your deductions meets the minimum amount requirement.
3. Seating. This information pertains to a modified vehicle with a side entry ramp and wheelchair user as front seat passenger. If you are choosing a different setup, make note of similar things that will impact your use of the vehicle.
Modifying a van involves lowering the floor (for our van, about 8 inches). That, and hydraulics which actually tilt the van in the direction of the ramp, allow the ramp to reach from the floor of the van to the pavement.
While the floor is lowered, the seats are not. That means there is more room between the floor and the seats.
For the front seat driver, this means stepping up (think tall truck running board) before entering the vehicle. Be sure the intended driver has the strength to hoist him/herself up to the seat. The front seats are each on a platform so the person seated fits normally as s/he would in any car. Both front seats are removable to provide the option for the wheelchair user to be the driver or the passenger. The unused seat will need a place to be stored. The middle row of seats are permanently removed to permit room for the wheelchair user to enter and turn into the front passenger space, and then to back out and exit forward on the ramp. The rear seat stays in place, but is higher from the floor. Two able bodied adults can fit on the rear seat. Having the floor lowered 8 inches may leave some passengers’ feet dangling. More recent vehicles may provide a pull-out bar for feet to rest on. We have found it works best for back seat passengers to enter the vehicle (on either the ramp side or other, higher side) after the wheelchair user has maneuvered into place, and to exit before the wheelchair user (preventing wheels and feet from competing for the same space).
Modifying the van changes its capacity from 7 able bodied people to 3 able bodied people and 1 wheelchair user. It also means an elderly or disabled passenger may find it difficult to enter and exit the van because of the van height on one side or negotiating the ramp on the other side.
The modification for our make/model (Honda Odyssey) van resulted in there being no space to store the spare tire. When we purchased the vehicle, the spare tire was in a box in the space behind the rear seat. If traveling with luggage, there may not be room for the tire. As an option to carrying it in the car, we were given a small kit to fix a flat tire; but that may not be sufficient to repair a tire puncture. Know ahead of time if this will be the case and consider how it may impact you.
4. Adjustment period. Other forms of getting around will never be as easy as a fully working body, so expect inconveniences and frustration. Realize that time and patience are required to adapt by using, learning and practicing. The wheelchair user must learn to enter and maneuver the chair properly into place and then exit by maneuvering backwards and then forward on the ramp out of the van. The driver must research, understand and learn how to operate the extra features of the accessible van.
With added mechanics and technology comes added room for error. Pushing the wrong button or pushing the right button at the wrong time can mean the ramp comes out of the van where there isn’t room for it. There is stress and possible damage involved in a runaway ramp! Be careful.
Even though we test drove vans more than once, it was a surprise after our purchase that there was no front console for storage/cup holders other than on the door. We had to improvise.
5. Securing Wheelchair. There are two ways to secure a wheelchair to the floor. One way is to use tie down straps that hook onto the four corners of the wheelchair.
Another way is to use a locking device. Both are an added cost. The locking device is faster and doesn’t require someone to attach the straps. The locking device is mounted on the floor of the van and a pin is welded onto the bottom of the power chair. The pin on the wheelchair, when aligned correctly, slides into the device and locks the wheelchair to the floor. A button on the dash releases the lock when it is time for the wheelchair user to exit. The locking devices are not universal, so you will need one that works with your specific wheelchair. If your wheelchair changes, a new locking device (and its cost) may be required.
These “extras” can and may be included in the purchase price, but be aware if you will be given new items or used items.
The place where we bought our van works side-by-side and together with the place that works on them; but they are separate companies. Be aware of this as it may affect servicing and payment.
Depending on the size and style of the wheelchair being used, securing the seatbelt may be complicated. I found it needs to be synchronized with opening the door and it took practice.
6. Parking requirements. You will need to have ample room to deploy the ramp. Not all handicapped parking spaces have the extra striped area next to it, and that striped area has to be on the ramp side of the vehicle. Be prepared that your parking place options will be more limited.
7. Maintenance/Service. In addition to regular vehicle maintenance, ramp service/cleaning is recommended every six months (to remove dirt, pebbles, etc.). We were given the first cleaning free, but after that there is a fee. Again, the service company operates separately from the vehicle dealer. Ensure you have a name and phone number for service and emergencies before you finalize your purchase.
8. Other Wheels. I originally hoped I could use a scooter in the passenger seat. A scooter’s tiller (steering bar) is in front of the passenger. The possible impact of a tiller in an accident and subsequent airbag release could cause serious injuries, so scooters cannot be endorsed for use in modified vans. Because the scooter I have is small, we do take it with us for use in some places. I envisioned being able to transfer from one to another inside the van, but there isn’t enough room to do so. It’s easier to move both outside of the van and transfer there.
9. Test Drive. Ask about and take advantage of any opportunities to test drive. Some places will allow you to use the vehicle overnight or longer. If not, ask about renting a vehicle to see if it meets your needs.
10. Purchase. Installing the locking device in a van and the welding the correlating pin on a wheelchair can take hours to complete. Try to plan the preparation so you aren’t waiting at the dealership for an extended amount of time while the work is done. You will want to be alert when you sign papers. Again, be sure you have clear information about routine and emergency servicing and who to call for it.
Buying a van that is modified for accessibility is a major decision that comes with its share of questions and caution, along with a big price tag. As with everything, being prepared helps avoid problems. We spent more than a year researching and considering the purchase and had been following website inventories regularly to see what was available, yet there were still surprises after the purchase. Having the van has allowed us to take short trips across town and longer trips out of town, all in safety and comfort. We were ready to take the plunge, and do not regret the purchase. What these vans do and provide is nothing short of amazing.
Please comment to share your experience.