Selecting a Wheelchair-Accessible Van

Equipment, Tips for Parents

By Lee Vander Loop
CP Family Network Editor

Many families raising a non-ambulatory child face the challenge of finding appropriate transportation when their child becomes wheelchair-dependent and can no longer be transported in a car seat. Parents struggle with questions of where to find financing, what vehicle to choose and what modifications are needed. The process can be overwhelming, but we have some suggested questions to ask and what to look for as you begin your search.

Choosing a Vehicle

New or Used?

When purchasing any vehicle, cost is usually the first and foremost concern. When choosing a vehicle for modification, there are additional costs involved. Both new and used vehicles can be converted for wheelchair accessibility. Adding your own modifications allows you to tailor the vehicle to meet your family’s specific needs.

You may also consider shopping for a used vehicle that has already been converted, which may be a cheaper option than purchasing and modifying a new vehicle. When shopping for an existing conversion van, make note of the head clearance, type of lift system installed, age of the vehicle, age/model/ condition of the lift system and the age/type/condition of the wheelchair tie-down system installed. If you’re not pleased with any of these features, inquire as to whether the dealer is willing or able to convert the vehicle to meet your needs.

Mini-vans and full-sized vans are the most common choice for vehicle conversions. Vans that have been converted for the handicapped are referred to as “conversion vans.” When shopping for a vehicle for conversion, make a list of features that are important to you. This will allow you to assess whether each vehicle is suitable for your needs.

Modifications

Tie-downs or Mounts

In order to ensure your wheelchair-dependent child is safe during transport, you must modify your vehicle to include tie-downs or wheelchair mounts. When a vehicle is converted, it often requires cutting or drilling holes into the floor to mount the docking station or strap tie-down systems.

The wheelchair tie-down systems most people prefer are electronic docking systems such as the products available from EZ Lock, the Q’Straint QLK system, the Slide’N Click system and Sure-lok systems. You can read more about each by visiting the manufacturers’ websites.

My Experiences

As the parent of a wheelchair-dependent child, I have used many types of vehicles, lifts, and tie-down systems over the past twenty years. It took us many years to find the best combination of vehicle and systems to suit our needs and we learned a lot along the way!

Our first converted vehicle was a Ford E-Series van, similar to a contractor’s van. The van initially included two rear bench seats. We had the vehicle modified to remove one of the bench seats and cut out a portion of the floor panel to mount the strap tie-down docking mounts and the mechanics for the lift system. This vehicle and its conversion package proved to be less than convenient. The lift itself was a Braun system with “grate” type platform and, when in the elevated position, blocked access from the sliding side door of the vehicle.

Additionally, the wheelchair strap tie-down system proved to be cumbersome, requiring us to climb around on the floor of the vehicle attaching the assortment of hooks and straps to the wheelchair and securing them in their respective slots on the floor. It also took considerable strength to pull the straps taut before locking them down with the spring-type ratchet system.

We replaced this vehicle with a full-sized conversion van with extended head clearance. This vehicle offered more space and interior maneuverability and was ideal for our large family. However, it came with issues as well. Converting this vehicle required the removal of the second rear passenger Captain’s seat to allow space for the lift system and our daughter’s wheelchair. The added head clearance was a plus but, as you can imagine, this vehicle was not economical on gas. Also, if you’re unaccustomed to driving a large vehicle, it can be intimidating to navigate and parking in tight places. As with our previous vehicle, we used the strap tie-down system, requiring us to climb around on the floor, pulling and tugging the straps in an attempt to secure them in their docking stations. The Crow River Folding Platform Lift we chose for this vehicle was an improvement over our previous. This model of lift folded up to a box, providing clearance and access to the side door.

Our third and final vehicle was a Ford Transit Connect van. We installed a rear entry Braun Millenium Lift system. A special platform was designed because the vehicle came with a ribbed cargo floor that was too uneven for the mounting of the lift docking system. We were also forced to remove the additional bench seat, so there was only one seat in the rear next to our daughter’s wheelchair.

The features I enjoyed most about this vehicle and conversion were the side entry doors on both sides of the vehicle and a standard elevated roof for increased head clearance. Also, this vehicle maneuvered more like a car than a van and the gas mileage was excellent! We used an EZ-Lock Tie Down system which freed us from crawling around on the floor, fighting with tie-down straps! We had initially considered a ramp system, but we were advised that it would require a more extensive and costly conversion including cutting out the floor to accommodate the ramp. This type of conversion package is more practical for a smaller individual and wheelchair and may not be feasible for an adult or tall individual with a larger wheelchair.

Final Thoughts

In summary, do your research! There are many, many vehicle conversion options, just as there are countless lift options available. When inquiring at a dealership, remember they are salespeople and may try to sell you what is convenient for them rather than what is best for your family. When we purchased our last vehicle, I had to educate the salesperson as to the lift options available. Initially, we were considering a ramp system but when that proved too costly, I researched other options. I educated the dealership about the Braun lift system in relation to the Transit Connect series of vans, which was new to the U.S. The dealership was unaware of the conversion options related to this vehicle. Special-needs parents – always the teachers!

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