Andy White provides five essential questions to ask yourself before you buy a wheelchair accessible vehicle
Many families benefit from the mobility that comes with ownership of a wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV). For some though, the decision to buy their first accessible vehicle and the process of choosing it can be challenging. Whether due to budget, uncertainty or a determination to “make do” with a standard car, it can take several months to decide upon a WAV.
Browsing online, you will find a huge selection of WAVs available in the UK today. While this can be a bit overwhelming for the first-time buyer, it’s good to know that the marketplace can generally provide a suitable product to meet almost all requirements. It may be worth making a shortlist of reputable providers, and explaining your requirements to them to see what they recommend. In order to start refining these options, here are five important questions you’ll need to answer.
1. Where is the wheelchair user located?
It is crucial to consider where, within the vehicle, the wheelchair user should be situated, as different types of WAVs offer different options. Lower-cost models typically restrict the wheelchair space to the rear of the vehicle behind the other passengers, while some offer more inclusion, next to the passengers. Some even position the wheelchair user up-front next to the driver.
If a carer needs to quickly access the wheelchair user to provide care, being able to sit directly next to them is much more convenient than having them isolated at the rear. Most users find travelling centrally in the WAV to be much more enjoyable, as they are closer to the driver and passengers and have a better view out. This also makes communication with the wheelchair occupant much easier.
2. How much space do you need?
People (and wheelchairs) come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Measure the wheelchair user’s seated height, width and front-to-back length, as these dimensions will help you further refine your choices.
Check these dimensions against each vehicle’s entry height, width and internal headroom, ensuring that there is plenty of space and headroom for the wheelchair user without them being cramped. A low, flat, level floor tends to provide more comfort, improved forward visibility and a lower centre of gravity for less roll.
Adequate space is especially important for younger wheelchair users, where correct posture when seated promotes comfort and wellbeing. Occupational therapists strive to ensure that wheelchairs support healthy posture and this should also be considered when choosing a WAV. Providing adequate headroom and a level floor will help to maintain good posture when travelling, reducing discomfort and fatigue. Think about how long you may have the vehicle, and whether you may need more internal space in coming years to accommodate the requirements of a growing child.
You will also want to consider any specialist equipment you carry on a regular basis, and that you have space to transport everything. Products such as roof boxes can be added to most WAVs as a quick and easy way to increase storage space.
3. Are you going to purchase or lease?
There are different ways to acquire a WAV. For many, the Motability Contract Hire scheme offers an affordable option, with an advance payment and surrender of your Mobility Allowance or Personal Independence Payment required to lease a new WAV. Motability also includes many of the costs of car ownership – including insurance, maintenance and servicing – for a five-year contract.
Not all vehicles are available through Motability though, and there are restrictions on how the vehicle can be used. You may be looking for a longer-term investment, or be ineligible, in which case there is a range of both new and pre-owned vehicles to choose from. Be sure to shop around for insurance (there are a few specialist providers) and look at what warranty the vehicle is covered by.
4. Is it suitable for daily use?
The vehicle you select should be suitable for everyday journeys and for all potential drivers. Any WAV needs to be easy to load and unload in your usual parking areas – whether at home, shopping or perhaps at school.
Check the availability of extras; you may, for example, want a powered winch, so check whether it is included or optional. Attention should also be paid to passenger safety. The restraints should fit correctly and be easy to operate; ask if have they been tested for the safe transportation of your wheelchair weight, as some systems may require upgrades for heavier chairs.
5. Can I try before I buy?
Once you have a handful of vehicles that look suitable for your needs and budget, make sure you try them out before you make your decision. Some companies will bring a demonstration model to your home, and although you may find many offering the same base vehicle, the quality and comfort that each conversion offers can vary immensely. Try to use the same test route for each vehicle, to give you an understanding of the differences of each conversion. Check the vehicle will be suitable for any multi-storey car parks you may use, and any traffic calming schemes in your area.
On a test drive, make sure the wheelchair user can ride comfortably and has enough space. Load and unload the wheelchair a few times to ensure the process is easy to carry out.
Don’t be rushed into making a decision; there is plenty of choice and lots to consider. Remember that the vehicle should fit your current and future requirements and, if possible, it’s better to invest a little more in a vehicle that does all you need, than to compromise on a vehicle that you have to replace sooner than you anticipate. What may seem like a minor annoyance on a short test drive can soon become a bigger issue on a vehicle you use every day.
Taking the decision to buy a converted vehicle is still a big step for many. But hopefully with these tips, you can make a start on the road to independence.
About the author Andy White is a Sales Consultant at Brotherwood, which designs and supplies wheelchair accessible vehicles.