How modified minivans keep people with disabilities on the move

Illustration by Gianna MeolaCar and driver

Extract from the January 2022 issue of Car and driver.

“It’s very important,” says Mark Whitehouse, a retired driving rehab instructor. “Important villain.” He got rather excited as we speak, his soft Florida-tinged accent gradually becoming more Massachusetts during the conversation. “Imagine you can’t drive,” he says, “you can’t drive to get to work, to the store, to socialize. You are stuck. When you drive your car, you feel good, don’t you? You feel free. “

Whitehouse believes everyone should have a chance to experience that feeling, even if vehicles need to be modified or people need to learn different ways of driving. This is what driving rehabilitation is: a combination of occupational therapy, medical advice, modified vehicles and specialized training so that people with physical or cognitive impairments can get behind the wheel.

It is not a new concept. In the early 1960s, an engineer by the name of Ralph Braun developed a lift system on a Jeep for himself, and other wheelchair users expressed interest. In the 1970s, BraunAbility modified Dodge vans for disabled drivers. Today, it is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of accessible vehicle conversions. “Braun is considered the father of adapted vehicle mobility technology,” says Danny Langfield, CEO of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA). “Ralph started it all.”

Modifications have come a long way since Braun’s Jeep. Dodge vans have given way to minivans, which offer ample floor space and a large door opening. Companies like BraunAbility and Vantage Mobility International (VMI) keep in touch with OEMs so they can quickly bring accessible versions to market. VMI’s most recent triumph is the conversion of a Toyota Sienna hybrid to all-wheel drive. Customers want all-wheel drive, but SUVs are harder to pull down and offer less flexible space, so MPVs remain the suitable vehicle of choice.

I think minivans are better than SUVs anyway, but young drivers aren’t always thrilled with the van life. “If you’re 20 and just graduating from college, you might not want to be in a van,” says Joan Cramer, occupational therapist and driver rehabilitation specialist at Next Street, a driving school in Quebec. Connecticut. For people who just need a little help with steering or extending the pedals, almost any car can be modified, but for those who need more space, this is of a minivan. Usually even college kids admit it can be fun when they are driving one. “I had a customer who came over excited about his van,” Cramer says. “He said to me, ‘My boys are making a pillow on the back. I’m going to have a couch, a TV, and a stereo.'” Ooh, Customscustom van, a little historic nod to the Dodge vans that started this.

I was wondering if modern driving aids make it easier to adapt driving. Everyone I’ve spoken to has said that autonomous driving, if it comes to fruition, will be a game-changer, but in the meantime the technologies they are passionate about include automatic high beams and electronic hand brakes. “New cars are a double-edged sword,” Langfield says. “On the one hand, automatic features like rain-sensing wipers and standard rear-view cameras are a real boon, but on the other hand, the complexity and cost are increased. “

The financial aspect can be intimidating. While a simple modification like a three-pin steering device – which allows a person with reduced grip capacity to use a steering wheel – can cost around $ 200, a full vehicle conversion could reach six figures. Insurance rarely covers such expenses, but manufacturer rebates and government programs can help. Connecting clients with financial solutions is a goal of the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, a national organization founded in 1977 whose goal, shared with ANCEM, is to make it known that assistance is available and that a handicap does not necessarily mean the end of driving.

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