What potential purchasers should look for in wheelchair accessible vehicles
Raising a disabled youngster can be a full-time occupation. Amongst other things, parents need to be constantly considering their next step in enabling the mobility of their loved ones. My long-standing personal involvement with disability has taken me to numerous exhibitions of equipment developed to address the freedom of movement of individuals by means of self-propulsion. From toddlers’ trikes (with cranks that drive the front wheels), to children’s first electrically powered chairs (that look like they were inspired by a fork-lift truck), there are many innovative devices offering variants of the common or garden wheelchair. Such devices provide children with, what I would term, “primary mobility”; they meet our basic desire to be able to get about and find things that are out of reach.
Secondary mobility, however, involves the parent/guardian/carer more directly, and it usually starts with the child being lifted from the wheelchair (or similar) into a suitable child seat that is attached to the seating in a motor vehicle. Obviously, this stage of being transported is something all parents experience during the baby to toddler years of the developing youngster. Pushchairs, prams or wheelchairs are then carried in luggage compartments of the vehicle until next required as a conveyance.
However, all children grow and, whilst most able bodied youngsters can scramble onto a riser seat, the parents of the child with disabilities often have to do the lifting, until they start getting back pain or their charge is simply too heavy to lift safely.
Power assisted wheelchairs can obviously help with the independence that both developing children and their parents desire, but now the problem arises of transporting a wheelchair-seated passenger. Today there is a wide selection of vehicles that have been converted to carry a wheelchair passenger, although it wasn’t always so.
When one looks back to the 1970 and ‘80s, it is plain to see just how far the products on offer have come, and the extent to which they have been developed for the benefit of wheelchair travellers and their families.
Wheelchair accessible vehicles are now commonly known as WAVs, but at one time they were fondly referred to as “Popemobiles”. Early vehicles were vans with an extended roof with windows added. The interior was usually very simple; the bare metal floor was often covered with a thin layer of carpet. These Popemobiles put the disabled person on display. They really stood out in traffic and they presented the wheelchair traveller as something of an oddity.
While these vans did provide mobility for the wheelchair user, it was not until the 1980s and ‘90s that the design of WAVs was given more thought, to provide customers with a similar level of comfort and dignity to that of other motorists.
A small group of vehicle converters got together in the late ‘90s and formed an association, the Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle Converters Association (WAVCA), to raise the standards of conversion work across the industry. A great deal has been achieved since then; today, WAVs form a specific Type in the EC Whole Vehicle Type Approval framework, and there is now a BSI Publicly Available Specification with universal standards for the Industry.
Getting a WAV
For any individual who is a higher rate disability living allowance holder, the Motability contract hire scheme is an excellent means of acquiring a WAV. First time applicants should be cautious, though; although WAVCA has driven up standards to be world leading, the organisation’s voice is not always heard by those selling or buying adapted vehicles.
Once the WAVs have completed five years’ of contract hire, they are often bought by traders who deal in second-hand vehicles and, especially today, by individuals who sell through the internet. Today, there is so much information about WAVs available online, but is it all good? While the appeal of a cheap second-hand WAV can be great, the purchaser may not always get the product that s/he needs. It is important to make sure that the highest WAV standards have been adhered to, and that vehicles match the specifications that the wheelchair user and the family actually need.
What to look for
If you have reached the stage where you need to carry a passenger seated in his/her own wheelchair, whether you are looking to buy new or second hand, my advice is to talk to as many other users as you can find. They are often to be spotted in car parks, and people are generally only too pleased to help and give advice based on their own experience.
Collect as many brochures as possible and fight the impulse to actually see the vehicles in question too early in the process. A few hours spent in research can help to focus the mind on the important features of a converted vehicle, and I suggest you list pertinent questions to ask at demonstration. For example, where will the wheelchair passenger be positioned when secured in the vehicle? If too far from the driver, conversation could be difficult. How will internal noise levels affect the ride experience? Will the wheelchair passenger have any visibility issues from his/her position in the car?
Once you’ve narrowed down your search, look in detail at the converter whose brand interests you. Make every effort to visit their factory and make sure that a home demonstration is sufficient to assess the issues of comfort, visibility and noise levels. Find out too about the support and after sales service that the company offers, as this can be crucial if things go wrong or if you need a bit of extra help.
The choice of vehicles will obviously be limited, as the WAV must be fit for purpose and many converters focus their transformations on similar models. However, while they may all be compliant with safety requirements and approvals, converted vehicles of the same model can vary considerably. Most modern WAVs use a ramp for wheelchair access and this is a good place to start checking the quality of the conversion work. If possible, look at similar models that are one or two years old.
If you get the right vehicle from a converter whose product is a strong brand, it should serve you well for many years, giving you the confidence to return for a replacement when you are ready or when your needs change.
Rod Brotherwood OBE is the founder and CEO of Brotherwood Automobility Ltd. Well-known as a campaigner for improving the standards and testing of converted vehicles, he was a founder member of WAVCA and continues to act as an expert witness, advising on suitable transport solutions in claim cases:
Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle Converters Association: