Whatever your disability, chances are your needs are unique — here is how two different RV travelers, one para (Consider Airstream RV Travel) and one quad, went about finding their homes on wheels.

Finding Athena

accessible RVFramed by the bright blue Sonora Desert sky, Picacho Peak gazes down upon my wife and me as we walk and roll along the expansive desert landscape around Tucson, Arizona. We look downslope from the road toward the campground and see our motorhome with her sun, rain, and wind-weathered exterior sitting among the saguaro cacti. After a three-month journey in which she has taken us more than 2,000 miles from our Pacific Northwest home through countless scenic places, we agree that this is the motorhome for us.

The purchase and the decision to go on the road was the result of considerable thought and research, mostly online. We wondered if it was practical to invest in a motorhome and travel for several months, given the additional considerations of my having a spinal cord injury and using a wheelchair. Eventually, after talking with other motorhome owners and learning about their travel experiences, we got a sense of the features that might make our travels easier and decided to go through with purchasing.

The Setup

We searched for an RV with capabilities that met our specialized requirements for the daily tasks that needed to be accomplished. To maximize resources and limit the number of modifications required, we focused on finding a used RV that already included most of the accessibility features we wanted. Our short list included one level floor with wheelchair access from the front of the motorhome to the back, roll-in shower, bed with a height that worked well for transfers, secure upfront passenger seating for a power wheelchair, and a wheelchair lift. In addition, there were features of interest that most RVs include, such as a kitchen with a sink and refrigerator, heater, air conditioning, electrical outlets, etc. When visiting new places, we wanted to enjoy the campgrounds and the local area, so the motorhome needed to be able to tow our Honda Element.

The RV’s bathroom setup works well enough to completely avoid using campsite facilities.

The RV’s bathroom setup works well enough to completely avoid using campsite facilities.

After months of searching online, we found a 36-foot long, 22,000-pound motorhome in Georgia. We eventually named her Athena. Built by Thor Industries in 2002, she is a V10 powered Windsport [see Manufacturers of Accessible RV’s, below]. She was already accessible, met most of our requirements, was sufficiently large and powerful to tow a vehicle, and had enough room inside for a wheelchair to maneuver fairly easily. Based on the online photos, the motorhome’s condition appeared to be good. We called the owner, who seemed nice, asked many questions, and made an offer conditioned upon its passing a pre-purchase inspection. The offer was accepted. After the purchase, since both of us were working at the time and neither had driven a motorhome, we hired a motorhome professional to drive Athena the 2,800-plus miles from Georgia to her new home in the Pacific Northwest.

The scale of Athena impressed me from the moment she arrived. Rolling from the back to the front of the motorhome, I began to believe we actually could live in this 250-square-foot rolling home for several months, or more.

As nice as we thought Athena was at the time of purchase, we wanted to make a few changes to improve her usefulness for our planned trips. We added a wheelchair docking system and a more durable tile floor. We removed the wardrobe and moved the bed slightly. Thus, rolling next to the bed, in the transfer zone, I am about five feet from the back window, where the nearly 270-degree scenic view from three glass windows can be appreciated. We also installed an inverter, increased the number of batteries from two to four, and added a propane heater.

Before we camped hundreds of miles from home, we wanted to feel comfortable living in the RV, and managing the plumbing system, and confirm that the bathroom setup worked well. We used the local campgrounds as a testing ground. We realized managing the plumbing was less difficult than expected. The key was figuring out a process, then practicing and refining it.

The RV bathroom has a roll-in shower with a hand-held showerhead. The shower floor is slightly sloped toward the drain, and there is a slight bump on the floor to keep water from flowing out of the shower that 5-inch shower chair casters can roll over. We found both the temperature and water pressure to be good. The bathroom sink and toilet are a few feet from the shower, right across the hallway. This setup works well, allowing us to avoid campground bathroom facilities.

Living the Life

After several weeks on the road, we really appreciated the conveniences of extended travel in accessible comfort. In the past, we had alternated between the cramped quarters of a van for shorter camping trips and the more comfortable but costly alternative of traveling via car and staying in motels. With car and motel travel, at each stop there is the unloading process of moving luggage, supplies, any food, etc., to the room, and the reverse process when leaving. Although many motels are very accessible these days, sometimes accessibility is lacking, which can add time and effort, and be problematic.

When traveling via a motorhome, we are always at home, taking along the personal space we’ve created — a homey comfortable interior — with our clothing, food and supplies. We’re assured of a dependable accessible shower and bathroom. Having a kitchen with refrigerator and cabinet storage allows you to stock food focused on your tastes and any dietary considerations, and being able to stock two weeks or more of food allows you to shop at your convenience. With storage cabinets, managing medical supplies is simplified when compared to suitcase storage. If a need arises to order medical supplies while on the road, medical supplies can be shipped to USPS general delivery at a nearby location.

We noticed the efficiencies and conveniences added up, allowing us to focus more on enjoying the travel locations, which markedly improved the travel experience. When in a reflective mood, my positive view of motorhoming always seems interesting to me, as there was a time when I thought I would be one of the least likely people to own a motorhome. Now I know that embracing RV travel has widened our world.

Tonight, outside Athena, the desert temperatures could be in the 40s, with some wind, but we will be sleeping several paces from a large saguaro cactus in windless comfort as we look up through Athena’s glass at stars lighting the desert sky. Perhaps we will dream of where she will take us next, as we head east toward Texas.

Manufacturers of Accessible RVs

As far as I can determine, our particular RV model is not currently being manufactured. However, I have seen accessible Windsports occasionally on the used market on RVTrader.com, and they may be available elsewhere. Other companies that may be currently manufacturing wheelchair accessible RVs are Newmar and Winnebago. For Newmar, it seems that three models with wheelchair floorpans and lifts are available: Canyon Star, Ventana and the Dutch Star. Winnebago’s Vista and Adventurer models may also be available with accessible floor plans. There may be a few other manufacturers, so conducting your own search is advisable.

• Newmar, www.newmarcorp.com
• Winnebago, winnebagoind.com

Other RV Resources:
• Dick Gore’s RV World, www.dickgoresrvworld.com
• RV Trader, www.rvtrader.com
• HTC Travel Club, www.handicappedtravelclub.com/about-us/
• Consider Airstream RV Travel, www.newmobility.com/2017/08/accessible-airstream-rv-travel/