Traveling can be a logistical challenge for people who use wheelchairs and similar mobility devices. So much can go wrong, including potential damage to mobility devices during air travel, challenges finding accessible transportation at your destination, and unknown factors regarding accessible hotel accommodations. To avoid these problems, many people have decided to take matters into their own hands by purchasing or modifying recreational vehicles. With an RV, wheelers can travel when and where they want, in circumstances they control — along back roads, stopping at parks and other attractions along the way, or keeping up with high-speed traffic on the nation’s interstates.
During winter months, visitors to warm weather locations will find thousands of RVs in communities of people who follow the changes in climate — snowbirds. In summer they head back north, visiting whatever locations interest them along the way. Many of the snowbirds are near or past retirement age, so the locations where they stay or park during their travels are often accessible, and their vehicles are equipped with adaptive equipment to allow safe and comfortable use of their traveling home.
The potential market value represented by people with disabilities and aging travelers is not lost on the recreational vehicle industry. More manufacturers are designing their vehicles to meet the needs of those who use mobility devices. For instance, Born Free RV of Humboldt, Iowa, is selling a class C motorhome aptly named the Mobility RV. Each Mobility RV is constructed to match the needs of the buyer and can be ordered in different sizes up to 33 feet in length. The company has a presence at Abilities Expos and targets their advertising to reach groups that value the lifetime of independent travel that accessibility provides.
Motorhomes and Coaches
Sandy Kaiser of Everett, Wash., values the 10 years that she and her husband spent traveling the United States in their Thor Windsport 32-foot motorhome. The vehicle was equipped with a wheelchair lift plus accessibility improvements in the bathroom and kitchen, since Kaiser uses a power wheelchair due to a childhood bout with polio. It also had hand controls so that she could take her turn driving. The couple sold their house near Seattle and lived in the motorhome full time, although that required some sacrifices. “Downsizing was tough, initially,” she says, “but once all of our excess items were disposed of, it was a huge feeling of relief. It’s surprising what we can do without when there is no room to store things we don’t really need.”
The couple visited all of the lower 48 states and much of Canada during that decade. They met some wonderful people during their travels, as those who stayed where they parked at night were always very friendly. Kaiser noted an interesting demographic regarding these other travelers. “I was initially surprised at how many people, men and women of all ages, travel alone,” she said, “but it was probably because the group that travels like this watches out for each other.”
Benefits of RV travel are the ability to sleep in the same bed every night, use of a private bathroom, and a kitchen where healthy food purchased at any grocery store can be prepared at a much lower price than fast food or restaurant options. Another benefit is the ability to bring family pets along for the ride. For the Kaisers, that included both the family dog and cat.
Newell Coaches of Miami, Okla., has sold several accessible motor coaches that are designed and built to meet the needs of their customers. Gerry Davis, of Glenarm, Ill., drives a 45-foot Newell coach to accommodate the needs of his adult daughter, Charissa, who sustained a brain injury while a teenager. The wheelchair lift and interior modifications, like a ceiling-mounted lift and wider aisles, ensure that the family can travel together in comfort.
According to Davis, “It’s a relief to know we don’t have to worry about accessibility of public transportation or lodging on our family trips. For people planning to purchase a RV, it is important to envision the interior layout and how it will work with the mobility device you use.” That advice comes both from a user’s perspective and as a professional who has been responsible for several projects to modify vehicles of all types. Davis is regional manager of United Access in Central Illinois.
Nick Farrell of Lewisville, Texas, paraplegic due to a 1978 oil field accident, bought a 35-foot motorhome four years post-injury. In 2004 he sold it and bought a used 45-foot Newell motor coach that serves his needs even better. The RV has a wheelchair lift, hand controls, swivel driver’s seat and was built for maximum accessibility inside. The author and motivational speaker plans to sell his house and live in the motor coach full-time during the next couple of years as he travels around the country on a speaking tour to promote his book. He can tow his pickup behind the coach, so he has accessible local transportation available wherever he stays.
Not everyone can afford a large motor coach, especially a new one, but there are other options available. According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, there are over 300,000 RVs manufactured in the United States each year, and thus there are hundreds of used vehicles on the market at any given time, both from dealers and on websites like Craigslist.
Doc Cadle of West Baring, Wash., needed to find a RV that would allow him full access to the vehicle while accommodating a hitch-mounted carrier for his mobility scooter that he must use due to polio in childhood. He originally owned a 22-foot Chinook motorhome that he sold, then purchased a used 23-foot Winnebago from Craigslist. That low-mileage secondhand vehicle, which provides reliable transportation to campsites throughout the Northwest, cost only $5,000. While that is still a significant investment, it is much less than the price of a new luxury motor coach, which can exceed $1 million.
It is also possible to make modifications to smaller vehicles that will make them more accommodating for travel or camping. Bernhard “Bernie” Weihs of Specialty Transportation & Services in Quakertown, Pa., recently modified a Mercedes Sprinter van for a client who uses a wheelchair. She prefers to avoid public restrooms when she is away from home, so they installed an overhead lift system for access to a toilet in the back of the van, along with a privacy curtain. The Surehands tracked lift system can also transport her to the front passenger seat. With the addition of a fold-down bed in back, the van can provide comfortable and safe surroundings for those who want to experience camping without much of the discomfort associated with staying in a tent.
Specialty Transportation has made similar modifications to a variety of vans, and even a former Greyhound bus, as have many other members of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association. After all, the lifts and hand controls that work for an accessible sedan or van can be used in a RV of any size.
For Jesse Case of Orting, Wash., owning an RV is not about cross-country travel. He recently bought a Coleman camping trailer, partly because it has a 29-inch wide entry door and roomier interior dimensions than some other trailers that are on the market. Those wider dimensions allow for easier maneuvering in his manual wheelchair, as the only significant interior remodeling required has been widening of the bathroom door. To access the RV, Case designed a removable ramp system that was then built by Handi-Ramp of Libertyville, Ill. The ramp can be easily erected and disassembled, then stowed and carried in a rack on the outside of the trailer. He has found several accessible campsites within easy driving distance from home, so the family visits them whenever possible.
According to Nick Farrell, there are plenty of reasons for owning a recreational vehicle. “I am far more comfortable and self-sufficient in my motorhome than I am in my house,” he says, “and it also means that I will never be treated like a piece of luggage on an airplane again.”
There are obviously many others who agree with him.
• Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, 703/620-6003 (eastern regional office) and 818/248-6600 (western regional office); www.rvia.org
• National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, 866/948-8341 or 813/264-2697; www.nmeda.com
• Mobility RV, 800/247-1835; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.bornfreerv.com
• Specialty Transportation & Services, Bernhard Bus Services, 215/679-8943; Bernhardbus@comcast.net, www.bernhardbus.com
• Newell Coaches, 888-3NEWELL or 918/542-3344; www.newellcoach.com
• Handi-Ramp, 800/876-7267; www.handiramp.com
• Coleman Trailers, 419/476-4478; www.colemansales.com/bodytype/travel-trailers/
• Surehands Lift Systems, 800/724-5305; www.surehands.com
• Thor Windsport RVs, 800/724-5305; windsport-rv.com