By Susan Hawkins
Personal wheelchair accessible transportation can be worth its weight in gold for family caregivers whose loved ones depend on a wheelchair to get around—thankfully, mobility vehicles can be much more affordable than that.
Wheelchair van basics
Minivans equipped for wheelchair access typically offer either side entry or rear entry access, so you'll have the option of choosing the conversion style that works best for your loved one.
With side entry access vans, the powered ramp unfolds from the side door opening. The passenger in the wheelchair can sit mid-cabin, right behind the front seats, or in the front-passenger position, because most side-entry conversions have a removable front seat.
A wheelchair user can even transfer to the driver's seat (to drive with hand controls) with a side entry van. This versatile conversion style can transport up to two wheelchair users at once. You'll still have passenger seating, and jump seats can be installed for additional seating.
Minivan rear doors are generally higher and wider than side door openings, so a rear entry van, with its access and exit point at the back of the vehicle, might work best if your family member's wheelchair is extra-tall or extra-wide.
Typically, the ramps on rear entry conversions are manually operated, with a powered ramp available for an additional charge.
Choosing the right wheelchair van
Use these 5 tips to help you find the ideal adapted minivan for your needs and budget:
- Establish a budget: Medical expenses can be a drain on any caregiver's finances. If you're thinking about buying wheelchair-accessible transportation for a loved one, the first thing you should do is determine a reasonable dollar amount to spend on a vehicle, both in total and per month. There are three well-defined price levels in the wheelchair van market: A new minivan with a new conversion: Expect to pay top dollar for a spanking-new minivan and accessible modification. A used minivan with a new conversion: There are several conversion companies that purchase used newer-model-year minivans with low mileage, convert them for wheelchair access, and sell them online and at dealerships. Opting for a used van with a brand-new modification could save you a lot of money and such vehicles are offered at a range of prices. A used minivan with a used conversion: Because handicap vans have been around a while and improved upon over the years, you'll find a market chock-full of used accessible vehicles with used conversions whose owners have sold or traded them to upgrade to a newer model. If you're budget-minded, seek out certified used handicap vehicles—and remember to negotiate.
- Shop dealerships both online and locally: Experienced, secure, online dealerships deliver handicap vans nationwide, so don't let that stop you from searching dealerships on the Web and locally for your best deal. You might even want to take a look at specific mobility classifieds online, where mobility van owners list their accessible vehicles for sale.
- Kneeling systems aren't always necessary: Some wheelchair vans on the market—both side and rear entry—have conversions that include a kneeling system. This allows the van to "kneel" closer to the ground to reduce the slope of the ramp. While a kneeling system can make entry and exit easier for the ‘independent' manual wheelchair user, a caregiver usually eliminates the need for an expensive (often unreliable) kneeling system.
- Ask the right questions: Once you've found a vehicle that interests you and want to move forward with a purchase, make sure you have pertinent information before you buy: What warranties are provided? Ask about the warranty on the conversion, as well as the base vehicle. Both a brand-new van and a brand-new conversion should have solid, multi-year warranties. Sometimes a used wheelchair van with a new conversion will have time remaining on the base van's original warranty, which should stay intact if the manufacturer's conversion operates independently from the minivan. Is delivery available? Customer pick-up might be the only option for taking possession of a van purchased locally. When you purchase from an online dealership that sells nationwide, delivery options should be available, so find out about delivery choices and charges. Can I count on you after I buy the van? It's all about aftercare. Top dealerships should present a detailed demonstration of your van and conversion to you at delivery, provide conversion repair and service assistance nationwide for as long as you own the vehicle, and offer a 24-hour, toll-free conversion emergency help line, so you're fully protected.
- Scope out testimonials and company reviews: See what experts and customers say about the dealership and its products in testimonials on the company web site and on review sites such as Yelp and Angie's List.
A life-changing wheelchair van can be a caregiver's best friend. For the ideal van at the best possible price, remember these tips when you shop.
Susan Hawkins is a writer for AMS Vans, Inc.—America's Mobility Superstore—a leading online and local wheelchair van dealership that sells some of the market's most affordable, new and used wheelchair vans and other accessible transportation, with nationwide and worldwide delivery.