Glen White and family friend Vicky Luna pose with White’s ‘66 Chevy Impala.

Glen White and family friend Vicky Luna pose with White’s ‘66 Chevy Impala.

Driving a vehicle is a daily occurrence for most people, and an activity that is often taken for granted. Driving provides a means of leaving the home to work, shop, attain an education, travel great distances or enjoy time with friends. But for many people with disabilities, the cost of driving can create what seems to be an insurmountable barrier. Fortunately there are several cost-reduction options available to those who are shopping for an accessible vehicle, depending on the strength, mobility and type of wheelchair or mobility device used by the prospective driver.

For those using power wheelchairs, the type of vehicle that is usually recommended for driving is a wheelchair van. That choice seems reasonable, until the costs of accommodations needed are added on to the basic cost of a new minivan or full-sized van. In too many cases, that becomes the point where the dream of driving begins to fade away.

Why do wheelchair vans seem to be so expensive? While the average person can walk into a car dealership and drive away with a new van that is comparable in price to a passenger sedan, it requires several modifications to stock vans before they are safe for hauling wheelchair-using drivers or passengers. Some of the costs associated with converting a standard cargo or passenger van into a vehicle that is suitable for transporting a mobility device include strengthening frames or suspension components, installing a wheelchair ramp or lift, and lowering the floor or raising the roof to create sufficient headroom.

Those types of modifications allow entry into the vehicle, but several more items must be added to make it safe. Tie-down or lockdown systems for the wheelchair must be installed, as there are strict standards to assure that passengers and wheelchairs will remain secure in the event of an accident. For wheelers who wish to drive, the costs vary according to the needs of the driver, and they can mount quickly. Some of the new electronic driving systems that allow someone with very limited strength and mobility to drive can add up to tens of thousands of dollars. Manufacturing or modifying accessible vans requires specialized training and licensing, and the few companies that are doing that work have a relatively small market of potential buyers to help support their businesses.

The Honda Element’s “suicide doors” made it easy for David Capozzi to stow his wheelchair.

The Honda Element’s “suicide doors” made it easy for David Capozzi to stow his wheelchair.

Fortunately there are programs to help pay for at least some of the purchase costs of a new van. Most vehicle manufacturers offer some type of mobility assistance reimbursement for accessible vehicles, usually about $1,000, and some offer an additional payment for certain accessibility modifications. That may not seem like much, but every bit helps.

Several state and federal agencies operate programs that fund transportation. State vocational rehabilitation agencies may pay for some or all of the modifications needed for accessibility or being able to drive a new vehicle, but first there must be an approved Individual Plan for Employment in place. Military veterans should check with Veterans Affairs, as they also provide financial support for vehicles or modifications needed by veterans with disabilities, depending on the status of the individual veteran.

State assistive technology resource or access fund programs offer loans for purchases of the technology needed for driving at interest rates lower than most banks. Saving money to pay for transportation for employment purposes is one way to avoid the limits on savings that impact Social Security recipients, and the means of doing that is by preparation of a Plan to Achieve Self-Support.

Many individuals have been successful at private fundraising to help pay for their vans. Some have set up their own foundations for that purpose or used one of the new “crowdfunding” websites like helpHOPElive, indiegogo or gofundme. One advantage of such programs is that donations made through them may be tax-deductible. Others seeking to purchase a van have been assisted by donations from foundations or fund drives coordinated through their church congregations or service clubs. Fun runs or similar events often have a charitable goal for funds raised, and what better cause is there than helping pay for a new wheelchair van?

Finding a Good Deal
In seeking bank financing, the first rule is not to overpay for a vehicle. The Kelley Blue Book is the car finance industry’s source for vehicle valuation, and is available to everyone online. Websites like autotrader.com, Edmunds.com and Hemmings.com also provide a good idea of the value of similar unmodified vans to establish relative value.

If a new vehicle is still above the buyer’s financial means, even with some of those subsidies, the used van market may be the answer. One advantage of buying a secondhand wheelchair van is that they are significantly cheaper — the initial owner absorbed the depreciation that occurred when it was first sold. Another advantage is that the primary features needed for accessibility are often already in place. It is rare for hand controls still in a used van to be a perfect fit for a new driver who is a wheelchair user, so it is important to get a fitting by a licensed mobility equipment dealer after the purchase.

A good place to start the search for a used wheelchair van is at a mobility equipment dealer. They resell the vehicles they accept as trade-ins and often recondition them before resale. Some dealers offer a limited warranty, which is a good indication that the vehicle has been thoroughly inspected and serviced. Dealers are also experts at fitting drivers in the van after the purchase, and they can install hand controls and whatever other assistive technology that might be needed in order to drive.

Besides searching the inventory of used vehicles at local mobility van dealers, the Internet makes it easy to expand the search regionally or even nationwide. Typing “wheelchair vans” into any Internet browser will result in access to information about thousands of such vehicles. Most dealers showcase their inventory of used vans online, so buyers can include the websites of such companies as Mobility Works, Performance Mobility, Freedom Motors, Ride Away, Absolute Mobility, United Access or other mobility equipment dealers in their search.

Daniel Ward plans to add a car top carrier to the roof of his recently acquired a ‘78 Jaguar sedan.

Daniel Ward plans to add a car top carrier to the roof of his recently acquired a ‘78 Jaguar sedan.

Private individuals are a great source of used vehicles of all types. Searching for wheelchair vans on the Internet, especially on websites like Craigslist or eBay, will result in dozens of postings. Mark Bender, a C6-7 quad from Duvall, Wash., recently searched for a used wheelchair van on Craigslist and found a nice Volkswagen van located 200 miles away. With lower mileage and an owner who vouched for its excellent condition, the Bender family made the drive to check out what has since become the first vehicle he has been able to drive since his 2013 injury.

Due diligence is required when purchasing any used vehicle, and when buying a used van it is especially important. Since vans often haul heavier loads, unseen damage to the undercarriage or suspension components can pose a risk. Besides completing a visual inspection of the vehicle, buyers should visit websites such as carfax.com or autocheck.com that can provide a record of all reported accidents and significant service, simply by checking the vehicle identification or license plate numbers. If everything checks out okay, a thorough inspection by a good mechanic can provide added security by pinpointing issues that are more difficult to spot and may not be related to an accident. Some auto clubs or insurance companies offer such inspections through their affiliate service centers.

Used and Older Models Can Work For Some
If a driver can transfer independently and does not need a wheelchair van, used automobiles can be found at every car dealership and through thousands of listings on the Internet. It may even be possible to purchase vehicles that have excellent accessibility but are no longer manufactured. David Capozzi, a para who works in Washington, D.C., still drives his Honda Element which was last manufactured in 2011. It came equipped with “suicide doors” on the driver’s side, which allow him to place his folded wheelchair into the space directly behind the driver’s seat.

Older luxury cars are spacious in comparison to those available from today’s manufacturers. Daniel Ward, from Honolulu, normally uses a power wheelchair for daily mobility. He recently acquired a 1978 Jaguar sedan, so he will be switching to a power assist manual wheelchair on the days that he decides to drive the Jaguar. His wheelchair will ride in a car-top carrier on the roof of the vehicle while on the road.

With newer models of automobiles getting increasingly smaller, older models are often far more accessible to someone who can transfer themselves into a driver’s seat and haul their wheelchair in after them. Older sedans without a center console work well for that purpose. Glen White, a para from Lawrence, Kansas, likes the space provided in his two classic 1966 Chevrolet Impalas, as they each provide plenty of room for him and his wheelchair plus three passengers. That amount of space is a rarity in automobiles on the market today.

The information above may not work for everyone, but should prove helpful in trying to reduce the “sticker shock” involved when shopping for a wheelchair van or lift-equipped pickup. The resources listed below are only a fraction of what is available with further searching. Buyers should comparison shop to determine what type of van or car is needed, seek out financial assistance from multiple sources, and be willing to check out the used vehicle market if necessary.

Resources:
• Kelley Blue Book: www.kbb.com
• Disabled Dealer Magazine: www.disableddealer.com/wheelchair_vans.asp
• National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association: www.nmeda.com/locate-a-dealer/
• National Spinal Cord Injury Association: www.spinalcord.org/
• Plan to Achieve Self-Support, or PASS: www.ssa.gov/pubs/11017.html#1
• Department of Veterans Affairs: http://va.gov/
• Blood Brothers Foundation: www.bloodbrothersfoundation.org
• HelpHOPELive: https://m.helphopelive.org
• Indiegogo: www.indiegogo.com
• Go Fund Me: www.gofundme.com
• Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialists: www.aded.net/
• Absolute Mobility: www.absolutemobilitycenter.com/wheelchair-vans.html
• Freedom Motors: www.fminow.com/used-cars/for-sale
• Mobility Works: www.mobilityworks.com
• Performance Mobility: www.performancemobility.com/
• Ride Away: www.ride-away.com/wheelchair-vans-for-sale/?storeinfo=hide
• United Access: www.unitedaccess.com/inventory/used-accessible-vehicles.php