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May 14, 2010

News & Features

Disabled and aging drivers can stay on the road with help from specialty equipment

The Associated Press

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The Toyota Sienna minivan is engineered to accept ramps, shown above, swivel seats, below, and other modifications to improve access. (Toyota)

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Life can throw anyone a curve ball, but when faced with diminishing faculties or a physical disability, retaining or regaining the independence afforded by driving is a priority. Chris Dailey knows.

"I was stabbed three times and then I was shot," says the Virginia resident, now a paraplegic who drives a vehicle with modifications. "I always drove a car. My hands and arms work well."
Some fixes for modifying a vehicle are simple -- for example, for elderly drivers and passengers or for those with arthritis -- while others are extensive and involve cooperation with a doctor.

Just as the number of maladies is extensive, so too is the range of equipment available. Dailey advises going to a showroom to see what's available. "Modifying an existing vehicle can be difficult," he says. "Figure out what equipment you'll need and find the vehicle that will fit that."
In some cases, simple fixes that don't require doctor approval can help.

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Removing seats, like in this Toyota Sienna, provides room for wheelchairs. Most boxy vehicles can be altered in this way. (Toyota)

A swivel seat, which turns to aid exit and entry, starts at about $2,500. It's a good conversion for those carrying an elderly parent in their van or SUV. A simpler fix: a spinner knob, which attaches to the steering wheel and aids those with arthritis, making it easier to turn. It costs less than $100.

Other changes are more extensive and can require doctor certification. The most common of these are hand controls and foot controls. Hand controls allow for operation of the brake or throttle in a number of configurations, or they extend existing controls for better leverage.
The least-expensive solution for those who use a wheelchair or scooter is a rear-mounted lift, which mounts the aft of the rear bumper and runs about $1,800. For those with a minivan or SUV, a side-entry lift, which lifts a wheelchair or scooter into the cabin, is more convenient. It's also more expensive, starting at about $5,000.

Ramps, which extend from the side or rear of the vehicle, are available, too, ranging in cost from $15,000 for manual slide-out units to $30,000-plus for power units.

Local help

  • The National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association has dealers that can service mobility equipment and offer 24-hour emergency service. Its site has links to local dealers at nmeda.org.

Any large, boxy vehicle can be modified, but the Dodge Caravan and Toyota Sienna minivans are engineered from the start to allow for these sorts of modifications, says Gregg Stewart, general manager of Ride-Away, an East Coast dealership that specializes in modifying vehicles with adoptive equipment.

Dailey drives a 2005 Toyota Sienna Ramp Van, which he bought brand-new, with the existing modifications made at the factory. The vehicle is a side-entry van with hand controls and a driver's seat that swivels to make it easier for him to get behind the wheel. He admits it was expensive; the bottom line was $52,000 for the vehicle and modifications.

Automobile manufacturers try to lessen the sting by offering a rebate for adding equipment to a new vehicle. It's usually about $1,000. Ford offers $1,200, and GM offers two years of free OnStar.

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