They See Me Rollin: My Wheelchair Accessible Minivan

This post will be about my wheelchair accessible minivan, what adaptive equipment I use, why I chose them, and how they work. For more information on adapted driving in general read this post. To learn about our process leading up to the decision to get a wheelchair accessible vehicle read this post.

Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAVs) come in many shapes, sizes, types and can have a range of assistive and adaptive equipment inside of them. Many people assume that they have to get a full sized or minivan in order to have a WAV, but thanks to the improvements in design and technology WAVs can now also be certain SUVs, pickup trucks, and even sedans! That being said, looks aren’t everything and certain vehicles will fit better for certain people and their lifestyle. For example, I was very exciting seeing all the SUV and sedan conversions but between the lack of passenger seating left in the sedan conversions and the smaller interior space of the SUVs, a minivan was best suited to my needs and I have very few regrets!

What I Have

I have a 2018 Toyota Sienna LE with a Side-Entry Power Fold Out Ramp (or TSLESEPFOR for short 😉 ). This means that the majority of my car is the same as a normal Toyota Sienna (engine, interior controls, body, last row of seats, and style) EXCEPT that the entire bottom of my car was ripped out and what they put back in is a lowered floor, the ramp, and a special rear suspension system.

Cool video about the modifications a car undergoes to become a WAV

There are several different companies that convert vehicles, the main two are Braunability and Vantage Mobility International (VMI), and a few different types of conversions. I am not going to go super in depth about each one, but more information can be found on the dealer’s websites as well as from an adapted vehicle dealer. The first main distinction is where the ramp comes out: side-entry (comes from the passenger side door) or rear (comes from the trunk). The second distinction is how the ramp comes out: manual or power and the third main distinction is the ramp storage: in-floor (flat ramp stowed outside of the car under the door and slides out) or fold-out (folds in half and sits inside the passenger door upright).

Things to Keep In Mind

  • Rear entry and manual ramp conversions will always be the cheapest
  • Different brands and types of ramps will have different: ramp angles, ramp widths, doorway clearance height, interior turning space, ramp weight limits, maintenance requirements etc. This can be overwhelming but speaking to dealers directly as well as your driving rehabilitation expert can help find the best solution for you
  • Different conversions will have different passenger abilities: passenger capabilities range from 1-5 (more if full size van) in seats, some conversions can accommodate multiple wheelchair users, not all will support the wheelchair user driving or being up front
  • Different ramp types may be more suitable for different environments: fold out ramps are easier to deploy onto curbs and uneven terrain but may track in dirt and water if you live in a rainy/snowy area, in floor ramps have the option to enter/exit passenger door without the ramp deploying/ getting in the way- may be a win if you have kids
  • Safety features: fold out ramps can be manually deployed from the inside in case of emergency and have higher side edges to prevent slipping off ramp, manual ramps often need a second person to deploy
  • Maintainability: power ramps require more regular maintenance than manual ramps, fold out ramps can often be less expensive to maintain

Why I Chose My Car Setup

After visiting several dealers, wheeling up a few ramps, looking at interiors, reading online, and process of elimination we were lucky enough to have this car mentioned to us and the pieces fell together. For me, I needed a side-entry vehicle because rear entry vehicles the wheelchair user sits behind the second row seats which would prove challenging to then get into the driver’s seat. I chose the power fold out because I liked that it could work as a manual ramp whenever needed, it would be easier to deploy onto curbs (key if parallel parking or in a city), it was cheaper than in floor, and had higher edges on the ramp to keep me from rolling off the side. Once we had narrowed it down to that, by happenstance this car popped up on our dealer’s radar. It had low mileage, was a Toyota Sienna, and already had a transfer seat installed in the driver’s seat!

Because I didn’t want to drive from my wheelchair, the transfer seat slides back into the middle of my van and turns allowing me to wheel up my ramp, lock my chair and transfer right into the drivers seat that came with the car. I then use switches that move me and the seat up to the driving position. It also works well to confuse everyone you park next to ;).

Picture of tan driver's seat in car with adapted hand controls and power base
Transfer seat, hand controls and steering knob

For hand controls, I use the Veigal Compact II Push/Pull hand controls- I push to brake and pull to accelerate. These are right hand mounted, which is not typical. These controls are made by a German company and are more often installed in non adapted vehicles as they can sit right next to the console and be out of the way. Typically, hand controls are column mounted (ie go through the steering column) and are operated with the left hand. Some disadvantages of this are that you are more restricted in your seat positioning, your drive hand is far away from the gear shift, they may have to make permanent modifications to your car to install (remove leg air bags etc), and the manual ones cannot be disabled for able bodied drivers.

Black Veigal Compact II Push Pull Hand Controls installed inside a car
Veigal Compact II Push Pull Hand Controls

Initially, the main reason I liked the Veigal Controls is they are on the right side and low down. I have less strength on my left side but good range of motion and the opposite on my right. Other benefits I have found are: they can be easily disabled for able bodied people to drive, they are inconspicuous, they don’t permanently modify the vehicle (except the holes in the flooring), they allow for the user to sit in a larger variety of places, they have a parking brake for changing gears or sitting at long lights, they are not fatiguing as you can rest your arm on the armrest, and they are very easy to use! Can you tell I like them? The last piece of adapted equipment I have is a SureGrip Spinner Knob which I have mounted on the lower left of my wheel and helps me turn the wheel with one hand. I like this one because it does not slide and the knob can be removed to be out of the way for an able bodied driver.

I plan to make a video demonstrating the features of my car, how I get in and how I drive with my hand controls and probably some better pictures. Thanks for reading!

Adapted Driving: Figuring Out How to Drive as a Wheelchair User

The Transit Problem:

Since starting my second stint as a full time wheelchair user in November, a lot has changed in my abilities, lifestyle, and needs than when I previously used a wheelchair in college. I now live in an area that has very little public transit, non-localized services, and pretty hot weather. Gone are the days of wheeling out of my accessible dorm onto an accessible bus to an accessible store or to class. Now, to even get to the street in front of my house I need a car or someone to help me get down safely as we live on a hill (yay -_-). I live in a residential area on top a rather small “mountain” (hill) where the only conceivable things I could roll to with my Smartdrive are a gas station, a pool, and some schools. Additionally, I have lost most of the motor control of my legs and some of my core making driving with my feet impossible. This also means I could no long load my almost 40 lb wheelchair into my car alone anymore. So what next?

Can I Drive?

At first we knew the answer was no. My body was going haywire, I was dealing with new and unexpected issues, I had no idea what my body could and couldn’t do and it seemed like anything I did resulted in increased symptoms. But as time went on and treatment changed I started to have a better feel for my body I started thinking about driving again. I talked to my family, my doctors, my physical therapists and the suggestion of completing a driving rehabilitation assessment was proposed to determine if it was safe. From that, it was determined that I could safely drive using hand controls, a spinner knob, and a car with an automatic transmission. I recommend anyone considering driving with a disability get an evaluation from a non-biased professional.

The Process:

For many months, I just didn’t drive and my parents broke down my chair and lugged it into whatever car we drove, rinse and repeat. This was partly because I was unsure of my condition and if it would be safe for me to drive and partly because I couldn’t drive my beloved Prius or load my chair into her independently. As we started to gain more information about my condition and stabilize me we began looking at options — and boy were there many! At first, we looked at ways to adapt my Prius to be able to load my chair independently (we knew we could add the hand controls into almost any automatic transmission car so this was the main challenge). My family of engineers rather quickly determined this was not going to work.

We then shifted gears to selling my car and getting a used car that could be adapted with a lift to help me get my chair into a car. From that we found that minivans, pickup trucks, and Mazda 5s were commonly the vehicle for manual wheelchair users who don’t load their chairs the typical way (breaking it down and lifting it across your body into a seat). People were incredibly creative, building their own lift systems like the one below.

Person showing their homemade conversion to a Mazda 5

We then found out that the Mazda 5 (sliding door is key) had a specific lift that is designed to pick up your chair with a robotic arm and lift it into the space where a rear passenger’s seat would be. For me, this seemed like a great option — I didn’t have to drive a minivan or a truck! Though some of the truck adaptations are crazy cool looking like this and this I just really didn’t want a truck. So we set out looking for a Mazda 5 and reading up on lifts. Well, they don’t make Mazda 5s anymore and stopped in 2015 and they are very hard to find with decent mileage. So then we looked at minivans. I thought, that since I could stand with support and was decently strong, that if I got a minivan and removed the bucket seat behind the driver’s seat I could just fling my wheelchair up in there and yaaay, I would be done. I even found a few wise souls on the internet proving it could be done. So, we went to Carmax and tried it. I did not have the balance or strength and my chair was just too darn heavy.

Denial

After I had eliminated all the reasonably priced and homemade options I resigned myself to being driven around forever and having whatever poor family member or Uber driver transporting me have to breakdown and lift my chair. And I am incredibly blessed to have the resources and the privilege for that to even be an option. After a couple weeks of mulling it over and tossing around random ideas like “what if I brought a lighter chair and minivan and I could maybe lift it in and it would solve all my problems”. Except not. You can only get a new wheelchair every 4-5 years through insurance and if I were to try and get a new chair that would be light enough for me to lift it would be around $6,000. Plus a minivan. Yeah no.

Black toyota sienna with ramp extending from passenger sliding door

Out of curiosity my mom and I decided to visit a mobility vehicle dealer to see what the lifts looked like, how much they cost, what cars they could go in, etc. We talked with a dealer about our challenges and frustrations and his answer was, “if you want the safest, quickest, and most efficient way in and out of a vehicle, a wheelchair accessible van with a ramp is the way to go”. Well surprise, surprise I thought. Of course they would recommend that, its the most expensive option — its basic marketing! Being the frugal family we are our gut was no, no we don’t need something like that.

The Direction Change

As we thought more about my needs and future we started to shift our mindset towards getting a wheelchair accessible vehicle. We considered the weather, ability to transport myself and others, ease of getting in and out, speed of getting in and out, potential for needing a power wheelchair, potential of progression of disease, reliability, cost, versatility, and resale value. For someone like me with fluctuating conditions, unsure prognosis, aging parents, and a very hot rainy location having a vehicle that could get me in and out quickly and safely was a game changer. While there are some wheelchair accessible SUVs, they’re not great for bigger wheelchairs or power chairs yet — though rumor has it the next 5 years will bring some great new conversions.

If I got a power chair, I could easily drive it into my van and could drive from it or be a passenger without needing expensive modifications or a new car. If my parents became unable to lift my wheelchair into a trunk, they could still drive me around. When its raining, no one has to be exposed to the weather to breakdown, load, and unload my chair. If I want to drive my family and my 88 year old grandpa we can fit my chair, his walker and 5 people comfortably. While I wasn’t super stoked about it being a minivan, the potential for it to transport me and my current and future family places for years to come outweighed its uninventive style.

Embracing the Minivan with Class

Cropped image of rear of minivan with bumper sticker reading "I used to be cool".

Accessible vans are very expensive. Prices are two parts: the base price of the vehicle and the price of the conversion. Conversion means taking out the bottom part of the car and lowering it so the interior is tall enough to accommodate someone sitting in a wheelchair, adding a kneeling system so the car lowers down to lessen the ramp angle, and adding in a ramp. The conversions alone usually cost 20-40K and do not include any other modifications (transfer seat, hand controls, switches, etc). Because of all of this, new WAVs usually run in the 60-80K range. As I mentioned in my Adapted Driving Test, Devices, and Vehicles post, there are funding opportunities, grants, and resources available to help offset this cost. That being said, it has been one of the best investments my family has made for my independence. Even when I am not driving, my van is my freedom.

For a full post about my van, what adaptations I use to drive, and the ways we use the van check out my They See Me Rollin post! (when I finish it)

Adapted Driving Test, Devices, and Vehicles

Are you a new wheelchair user? Do you have a disability that effects your ability to drive a car normally? Do you want to drive again but not sure how you can? This post will be all about options for disabled people to drive including adapted driving tests, hand controls, car modifications, wheelchair accessible vehicles, and more!

Step One: Can I Drive?

While disability alone does not disqualify you from being able to drive, certain disabilities, medical conditions, and medications may impact your ability to safely drive. However, there are many people who can’t drive the typical way because of a disability, but could safely drive with adaptations and or restrictions. So how I do figure out if I can drive?

Adapted driving assessments are designed to evaluate new or newly disabled drivers on their ability to safely drive and help determine any adaptations or special equipment that would help them do so. These assessments are completed by a Certified Driving Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS) and consists of a clinical evaluation and an on the road test (if determined to be safe). To find a driving specialist near you, you can search on the Association of Driver Rehabilitation Specialists’ directory. A referral from a specialist (usually a doctor, OT, driving school or PT) is usually needed to attend a driving rehabilitation program.

driver and instructor in car during driving exam

The clinical evaluation tests physical abilities, strength, vision, perception, attention, and reaction time through a series of tasks and movements and can often be billed through your insurance. If you are determined to be a good candidate for driving, you will then complete an on the road portion which is similar to a test a new driver completes. If adaptations are needed to drive, this part will be completed with that equipment. Examples of such adaptations include: hand controls, steering knobs, custom seating, lifts, ramps, special mirrors, and special buttons. Once the evaluation is complete, a summary will be completed with the findings, recommendations, and equipment or restrictions. The equipment can then be installed by a mobility equipment dealer. Dealers can be found through the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association’s (NMEDA) directory.

Not sure where to start or find a program? Oftentimes states will have a driving rehabilitation program as a part of their Vocational Rehabilitation department. In some places, these services (evaluation, equipment, training) are free to residents. If you are a veteran, the VA has Vocational Rehab department that provides extensive services. I will talk more about this in the adapted car section.

Step Two: Adapted Driving Devices and Vehicles

There are a wide variety of devices that can be used and I am by no means an expert, but here are some of them I learned about in my research and evaluation.

Driver's side of car pictured with driver using hand controls and a steering knob to drive
Example of hand controls and a steering knob
  • Hand Controls: Hand controls can be used to replace using your legs to control the brake and accelerator. These can be needed if you have paralysis and amputation but also any disability that effects your lower limbs. There are a wide variety of hand controls and your CDRS may recommend a specific type, brand, or let you decide. For more information about specific types of hand controls, click here! If you have spasms, there are blocks that can be put in front of the pedals so you don’t accidentally hit them.
    Note: if you require hand controls, you are only allowed to drive automatic transmission cars.
  • Steering Knobs: If you only have one arm or are using hand controls, a steering knob may be recommended. These come in a variety of types from knob shaped to post shaped and allow for easier turning without letting go of the wheel or needing a second hand.
  • Switches: Switches can be added to the wheel, steering knob, or hand controls and are customizable buttons that allow the user more convenient access to turn indicators, wipers, hazards and other car functions. Some examples can be found here.
  • Transfer Seats: These are seats that can be put in a wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) that allows the user to slide and turn the drivers seat back to make transferring from a wheelchair easier. This is a great option for people who don’t want to drive from their wheelchair but can’t load their wheelchair in their car independently. A video demonstrating how it works can be seen here.
  • Pedal Extensions: Pedal extensions are devices attached to the brake and accelerator that allow people with short legs to reach the pedals from a comfortable driving position.
  • Lifts: Lifts are adaptations that help get you and or your wheelchair into your vehicle. There are car seats that swivel out the door and lower for easy transfers and even foldable boards that lift you up into the driver’s seat that can be put in several models of cars. There are also lifts that lift your wheelchair into your car, trunk or on top of your car. There are also lifts that lift you while in your wheelchair into your vehicle. These types of lifts are common in pickup trucks and SUVS. Depending on your ability, type of wheelchair, car make and model, and lifestyle this may be a great option for you.
Wheelchair accessible lift in a truck
  • Ramps/ Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAVs): For those who driver from their wheelchair, have large electric wheelchairs, or cannot load their wheelchair independently, having an adapted car with a ramp can be life changing. However, to be able to accommodate the ramp and the user a full conversion must be done to the car making these vehicles very expensive. WAVs come in many make and models from your typical minivan to SUV’s to full size vans with lifts. While these vehicles are expensive, there are also funding options, grants, and programs that can help you obtain one. If you have a disability that has a foundation (MS, Parkinson’s, ALS), they may have grants and programs to help pay for this equipment and adaptations. Another resource is your states Vocational Rehab program. In many states, if the vehicle could help you return to work or school, Voc. Rehab will pay for the cost of the adaptations and vehicle conversion once. This means you would just need to pay for the retail value of the car (if you can’t modify one you have).
Wheelchair accessible Ford SUV

To learn about my experience with adapted driving and vehicles, read my post here!

Resources for Wheelchair Users

Featured

Assistive technology (AT) is my passion. It combines the best of my engineering, medical, and maker mind to solve problems for myself and other disabled people. As I have been adjusting to being a full time wheelchair user again I have had to modify, create, and improvise not only my physical environment but also my habits and goals. Having a background in AT, many of these changes came to mind automatically or through the suggestion of the many brilliant likeminded individuals of the internet. Through this, I have discovered large gaps in resources and information ranging from adapted driving to basic adaptive equipment to help you through the day. My hope is that this post will serve as a resource for people like me.

***This is an ongoing page, links will be added in as I finish posts***

Adapted Driving Test, Devices, and Vehicles

Wheelchair accessible van with ramp extended out, manual wheelchair user inside vehicle
Wheelchair accessible minivan

This is one of the areas I found the biggest information gap in and incidentally, the category of AT that I knew the least about. Click the above link to read my post on how I drive being a wheelchair user, the wheelchair adapted vehicle I use, and information about disability driving evaluations.

To read about my personal experience with adapted driving and vehicles read my post: Adapted Driving: Figuring Out How to Drive as a Wheelchair User.

For more information about my van’s adaptations check out my post: They See Me Rollin: My Wheelchair Accessible Minivan.

Home Accessibility: Wheelchair User/ Physical Disability

In this post I talk about some of the major modifications we have made to make our two story, standalone home accessible to me. Read to find out about stair lifts, ramps, adjustable beds and more!

AT Hacks from Everyday Items

Affordable AT

Wheelchairs and Mobility Aids