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Friday, May 24, 2024

Accessible Cars Aren’t Born, They’re Made

Almost a decade ago, my middle son was born with multiple disabilities. I obviously had many concerns at the time, but one of my biggest was how we would manage accessibility challenges as he grew up.

For the first few years, my son did well getting around in a car seat and a stroller. But by the time he was 3 years old it was clear how important it was for us to order his first wheelchair. He has cerebral palsy, and pediatric wheelchairs come with custom options to contour and align his body to grow well.

Initially, I tried lifting his chair into the back of my SUV. That lasted about a week before my back started hurting, so I had to look into other options. I couldn’t go to a mainstream car dealership: They don’t offer accessible van packages, and most aren’t, in any way, familiar with accessible options or features. Instead, I had to go to a specialized mobility dealer. I met with Nicole Bryson, the owner of FTMobility, a vehicle customization shop in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, that specializes in modifying vans for disabled passengers and drivers.

Mobility shops modify minivans, and some SUVs, to allow a passenger to travel in their wheelchair by installing a ramp on the side of the van or in the rear. Rear-entry vans can be modified with either a long-cut ramp or a short-cut ramp. A long-cut ramp allows the wheelchair to be pushed in between the two captain’s chairs in the second row, and a short cut keeps the wheelchair behind the chairs. I knew I wanted a rear-entry long-cut ramp. My three children are close in age, and it was the only way that they would be able to sit next to each other–something I preferred for my middle son’s social and emotional development. I also wanted my son close to the driver or front-row passenger in case he needs assistance when we are on the road.

Additionally, a side-entry van can be challenging to park. Most parking lots have only a few designated side-entry spots (the ones with the blue lines that leave enough room for the ramp). If those spots are taken, I have to circle around until one opens up. (And I can’t drop off my young son and then park the car.)

After researching all our options, I purchased a Toyota Sienna minivan modified by BraunAbility with a rear-entry ramp. I opted for an automatic ramp, so when I press the trunk button on the key fob, the lift gate opens and the ramp automatically lowers—a feature I love when I have to navigate a busy parking lot with three children.

For an extra fee, I had FTMobility install an EZ lock system. This convenient add-on allows me to click my son’s wheelchair right into the van as opposed to tethering it in four separate locations each time I get him in and out.

I have been driving this modified van for more than four years now. I love the freedom it gives our family. Aside from the ease of getting the three kids in the van, the amount of space behind the wheelchair is convenient. When it’s just the five of us, I can use that space for storage. I roll a wagon right into the van after a trip to the grocery store. (This is especially helpful after a Costco run.) Or we load the van with a beach cart all set up and ready to go–no reassembly needed once we arrive. We can also transport smaller furniture or two to three children’s bicycles. When we need room for more passengers, we have a jumper seat in the back that folds down to accommodate two more people.

Money and Maintenance Issues

As much as the van has made our lives easier, there are some drawbacks. The cost to modify a van is $10,000 to $30,000, and that’s on top of the original price of the vehicle. We were lucky to find a state program with funding sources available to help us, but it’s not an easy road, and those sources are not available for everyone.

Mobility companies, like BraunAbility, modify vans already made for retail. They move parts around, like the exhaust, the gas tank, and the air conditioning, to install the ramp. The second-row captain’s chairs that came with our original van were removed and replaced with smaller seats to make room for the wheelchair.

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As a result, we’ve had some additional maintenance needs that we wouldn’t have encountered if our van didn’t have to be modified after assembly. For example, several parts of the exhaust have been replaced, and the sensors in the rear of the van have failed because the wiring has been relocated. Issues like these aren’t simple fixes.

Some Toyota dealers will service parts of our van and others aren’t comfortable touching it at all because of the modifications.

"It's a common issue that we face with most car manufacturers,” Bryson says. “We’ve had to build relationships with local dealers from each of the car manufacturers like Toyota, Honda, and Chrysler in order to have the support we need to service the vehicles. When a client goes to a dealer outside of our network on their own, service managers are reluctant to work on their vehicle because of the modifications. If it’s a non-mobility concern, there should be no problem in getting their issue repaired at an OEM dealership.”

We could go to FTMobility for most of our repair needs. It has great service and even provides a loaner van. But it's close to an hour drive from our house. Beyond the lack of convenience, removing and reinstalling car seats and other gear is time- and energy-consuming. So we go to our local Toyota dealer as often as possible for routine maintenance, and we end up at FTMobility at least twice a year for routine maintenance on the ramp.

We have also had to contact BraunAbility directly several times for support. It has excellent customer service, but managing communication with a third resource while my husband and I are raising a young family and juggling numerous doctor and therapy appointments for our son is frustrating.

Another downside is that the van is physically lower to the ground. We have to pay attention to the grade of any hills we drive down or the angle of parking lot entry and exit ramps. If the incline of the road is too steep, the back of the van scrapes along the side of the road and can get damaged—a difficult nuance for a family that loves to travel and explore and is reliant on one vehicle to get there. So while accessibility may be available to us, it’s by no means available to all, especially not everyone who may need it.

Where Are the Automakers?

I’ll need to purchase a new van in the next few years and I don’t feel like I have many options. According to Bryson, the ability to modify a vehicle is left up to the company making the modifications–in our case, BraunAbility. Chrysler, Dodge, Honda, Chevrolet, and Toyota all have modified options, which seems like a lot, but most of these vehicles are side-entry only, and they all come with the same maintenance and support issues as our rear-entry model. With the general market offering more than 400 vehicle models for everyone else, our choices for wheelchair-accessible vehicles are pretty limited.

I spoke with a couple automakers to better understand their involvement with the modification process and to talk about any plans they have to make accessibility easier in the future.

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Leonard Brown, the fleet market requirements manager and DriveAbility program manager at Stellantis (Chrysler’s parent company) explained that when originally launching the Chrysler Pacifica, the company set up a measuring session day to give the modification companies the opportunity to walk through every part of the van. Then Chrysler provided numerous blank vehicles (with nothing installed) so the up-fitters can measure and engineer the requirements for modification.

Stellantis offers an equipment-delete option in several vehicles where the car comes from the assembly plant without seats, and the mobility company can install what the customer needs. This approach keeps excess materials out of salvage yards and could potentially cut costs for the purchaser.

Amy Baker, a senior manager for fleet marketing at Stellantis, explained that “if there is a transfer seat that needs to fit within a particular vehicle, [Stallantis] has those specs ahead of time so, as they design a vehicle, they know what those door entry points need to be so that the transfer seat can work within that vehicle.”

There is a “multitude of equipment that somebody might need, whether it’s foot pedals, driving controls or transfer seats. The website has compatibility charts that show which of their vehicles can be outfitted with the type of equipment an individual might need. The majority of their vehicles can be adapted in some form or fashion.”

They also offer up to $1,000 reimbursement for any mobility equipment put on their vehicle. Brown and Baker directed me to the FCA DriveAbility program, which is a good first stop for those looking for a modified Stellantis vehicle.

“Not everyone wants a minivan,” Baker said, so they try to educate their driver rehabilitation specialists to provide information about which modifications can be made on each vehicle.

Alan Hejl, the accessibility strategy manager at General Motors, said the company also has discussions with mobility companies about models coming out and provides schematics and blueprints of its vehicles to companies that make accessibility modifications.

General Motors works with several mobility companies, such as ATC Innovative Mobility and Freedom Motors, as well as BraunAbility, who right now is the market leader in the industry. Each company has its own method of fitting cars for accessibility, which means that a Chevy Traverse modified by Freedom Motors might have different engineering (and different service needs) than one modified by BraunAbility.

Like Stellantis, GM's mission is to foster better relationships to allow the automaker to know what it can do to make the vehicles as ready as can be for modification with as little waste as possible.

“In a nutshell, it’s a work in progress,” Hejl said.  In the past, "disability and inclusion wasn’t at the forefront of the industry. [Today], GM has a mission to be the most inclusive company in the world.”

And when I asked about the challenges we’ve had servicing our van? Both companies agreed that going directly to FTMobility for repairs that are outside of the original manufacturing parts (like the exhaust and the air conditioning) is our best bet. Local dealers aren’t equipped to handle repairs on modified parts due to the smaller market share of these vehicles. But ideally, with a more streamlined approach, the hope is that service can be streamlined as well.

We will most likely end up with another Toyota Sienna simply because it’s the only minivan available with a long-cut rear-entry model. Right now, the vans are available in a hybrid version only, which is amazing for many reasons, just not for accessibility—the battery is in the middle of the van and difficult to move to install a ramp.

Until then, we will be getting out as much as we can with our family and taking advantage of the technology currently available. It’s been life-changing.

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