Like every high school kid, Ethan Bailey of Santee, Calif., was looking forward to the day when he could start driving. Born with thrombocytopenia with absent radius syndrome, he knew his disability would make the entire process more complicated — from learning to drive to buying an adapted vehicle — but he and his parents were determined to have him behind the wheel of his own car by the time he started college. “I wanted it as soon as I turned 15 and a half,” says Bailey, now 19 and a freshman at Grossmont College. “That’s when you can get your learner’s permit. But there were so many hoops I had to go through — it took me two and a half years.”
Before he could actually start learning to drive, however, he needed a van. Because of his limited reach and other disabilities (he is a single leg amputee), the usual hand control/pedal extension setup wasn’t going to work. They eventually turned to Driving Systems Inc. in Van Nuys, Calif., a three-hour drive from his home. DSI already had a usable van on site — a 1999 Ford E-series — and devised a workable system for Bailey using reduced-effort steering and push-button controls originally designed for quads. “I had 10 hours of training on the van in Los Angeles — that’s some tough stuff to drive with for the first time ever!” he says, laughing.
Finally, in June of this year, Bailey received both his new van and his driver’s license. After years of having to depend on friends for rides, he enjoys taking them places — whether it’s to college classes, the beach, or to nearby San Diego. He is relishing his newfound freedom — and the novelty won’t be wearing out anytime soon. “It’s probably the biggest change I’ve ever had in my entire life,” he says. “There’s just so much more independence — that in itself just blows me away, still. Particularly because I had to wait so long.”
Roads? Who Needs Roads?
Mike Young, in his own words, “was brought up and raised in the dirt.” A former professional motocross racer, he’d been riding motorcycles from age 5 until the day he sustained a T9-10 SCI at age 27. Having a disability, however, did not quench his “need for speed,” so he set out to develop a vehicle that would enable him to go off-roading once again — not to race, but “just to get out in the open and have some fun.”
Since Young doesn’t drive from his wheelchair, the conversion (by Mobility Specialists of Brea, Calif.) of his 2008 Kawasaki Teryx offroad buggy was very simple: just add hand controls. Young considered an MPD control — a traditional pull-down-push-forward type found in most adaptive vehicles — but found that it didn’t work well in the tight confines of an offroad buggy. “It rams into your knee all the time,” he says. “You can’t even give it a quarter throttle and it’s in your kneecap. It’s not like in a car where you have a lot of room.” So Young opted for a twist-throttle control, of the sort he remembers from his motorcycle days. “The first time I went out, I had the time of my life,” he says. “It was so much fun.”
The Teryx is low enough to the ground so that a para with good upper-body strength like Young can transfer into it easily without assistance. Most of the time he doesn’t even bring his wheelchair. “I have the unit set up so my two little boys can go with me. There are seats in the back, so they can strap in and cruise with me. If I want to bring the wheelchair, all I do is disassemble it and throw it in the passenger seat. But usually I’m just going for a ride — I’m not going to get out.”
Although Young enjoys the thrill of speed, he believes his offroad conversion has appeal even to drivers with more sedentary interests. “A guy could put a cooler in the trunk and have a good time fishing with his buddies. He could literally just fish from the unit, because it’s four-wheel drive and can pull right up to the water. It’s the coolest device ever.”
Reader Concern: Ramp Slope
Do you know of any sources with expertise who can be consulted to resolve vehicular accessibility issues? I tried the Rollx minivan, but the difficulty I’ve run into is ramp slope. I also tried another company, but the ramp slope was comparable to Rollx’s. Is there a minivan conversion available where the ramp’s slope is lessened, compared to others on the market? Freedom Motors indicates a 10-degree slope for its Honda Element; it may solve my difficulty, but if it doesn’t, I’m going to be back at square one.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ah, ramp slope — the bane of any manual chair user who doesn’t have arms the size of tree trunks. We asked Julienne Dallara of MobilityWorks (formerly Advanced Mobility) in Van Nuys, Calif., what her experience tells her.
“For a long time ElDorado, who bought the Amerivan line from Ricon years back, had the least steep ramp slope,” Dallara says. “That has been emphasized in last year’s debut of the 14-inch drop floor, resulting in a ramp slope of — I think — 7 degrees. Then VMI came out with their 2008 Dodge Summit conversion, which combined a shorter ramp and a shallower ramp angle – unheard of! Not to be left in the dust, Braun then debuted their Entervan XT conversion, with a full 56-inch door opening and a 7.5-degree ramp angle.”
Dallara — a wheelchair user for 13 years and a mobility specialist for more than nine years — also urges buyers of adapted vehicles to forego the online sales route and seek out dealers that have been certified by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association. “I cannot do enough to educate readers on the dangers and pitfalls of purchasing a converted vehicle over the Internet,” she says. Although convenient, and often less expensive than brick-and-mortar dealerships, Internet-based sellers generally offer a one-size-fits-all vehicle that won’t meet the specialized needs of many drivers. “Oh, did you want a power ramp? Remote? Second key? Ramp that doesn’t bow when you step on it? That’ll be extra.” Vehicles purchased from online sellers often cannot be serviced at local mobility dealerships, and frequently lack warranties and other protections commonly available elsewhere. “When a customer buys a converted vehicle through a NMEDA-certified dealer, he or she has recourse.”
• Braun Corp., www.braunmobility.com; 800/THE-LIFT
• Driving Systems Inc., www.drivingsystems.com; 818/782-6793
• ElDorado Amerivan, www.amerivans.com; 866/392-6300
• Kawasaki Teryx, www.kawasakiteryx.com; 800/661-RIDE.
• Mobility Specialists, www.mobilityspecialists.com; 877/777-LIFT
• MobilityWorks, www.mobilityworks.com; 877/275-4907
• National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, www.nmeda.org; 800/833-0427
• VMI, www.vantagemobility.com; 800/348-VANS