A practical guide to choosing an accessible vehicle
Transport, whether in the form of the family car, school minibus, taxi or care home vehicle, is critical to accessing the lifestyle and services we all need.
In this article, I will offer an overview of things to consider when choosing a vehicle for someone with a disability or SEN. It should be borne in mind that requirements may change many times over the years and what might be suitable now will need to be reviewed as circumstances and lifestyles change.
From infancy, baby and child seats offer a safe environment for car travel. However, many standard car seats just don’t offer the level of postural support that many children with special needs require.
There are a number of special car seats to choose from with features such as a 90 degree turn-out system for easy access and less risk of injury to carers, multi-position recline mechanisms, adjustable height backrest, enhanced postural stability with wider seats and foam pads and rolls, mouldable seats, lambswool covers for comfort and seat extensions to accommodate a growing child.
Special needs car seats can accommodate infants up to young adult size. Advice should always be sought from a good paediatric supplier in association with your occupational therapist (OT).
As well as the usual mandatory car safety belt, you may find that the child or teenager needs additional postural support or help with sitting in an upright position. Or you may find you have a budding escapologist on your hands and need to keep buckles and fastenings well out of the way or impossible for little fingers to undo. Some seat belts and harnesses have hidden fastenings and some fasten behind the seat back. This may be particularly important for someone with learning difficulties or challenging behaviour and ensures that the driver can concentrate on driving without worrying their passenger may not be secure. Some belt systems also offer a pelvic T-belt which holds the pelvis to the back of the seat to ensure a good position and prevent very active passengers from wriggling and sliding forward.
All additional belts and harness systems should always be used in conjunction with the vehicle’s standard seat belt.
If the young person can walk a little or weight bear for a short time, then a seating product which aids the process of transferring may be of help. Look out for rotating cushions, replacement front seats which swivel out of the vehicle and over the door sill, and even electronic turning seats which raise and lower and are suitable for getting in and out of higher MPVs and small minibuses.
Even something as simple as an extra grab handle or a little bar which fits into the door mechanism to give something else to lean on can make all the difference.
Where transferring manually is not an option, a personal hoist may be useful for getting into the front seat. The wheelchair user sits on a canvas seat which is then attached to the electric hoist system fitted onto the door panel. Lift up, swing in and gently lower onto the seat for travel.
A hoist or lift may also be used to help with getting a cumbersome wheelchair or scooter into the boot of the car. Consideration should also be given to securing heavy loads even when stowed in the boot. Some cars are more suitable for stowing equipment or luggage than others. Always check the dimensions of the boot, how high the loading height is and whether or not you will need to lift up and over a ledge in order to access the space easily. All of these adaptations should be assessed with, and fitted by, a specialist adaptations supplier.
Travelling as a passenger
For children and young people, or older people who cannot or do not wish to drive, a passenger wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) is ideal. With his/her chair safely secured to the vehicle, the wheelchair user travels either in the front or rear passenger position.
Depending on the size of the wheelchair and other equipment carried, there will usually be space for other people to travel in the car too. Single wheelchair WAVs are ideal to replace a standard family car whereas the mid-sized people-carriers and small minibuses are also suitable for a number of different wheelchair users and other ambulant passengers.
When choosing a WAV, important points to consider include space and access for the wheelchair on entry and within the vehicle, ease of access (including angle of ramp or use of a lift), use of necessary operating systems by the driver who is assisting, and ride comfort, which should take account of good visibility for the wheelchair user. As with all vehicle choices, overall load carrying requirement or passenger capacity, engine size and gearbox requirements and drivability are also important considerations.
Care should be taken when choosing a WAV, as the conversion process involves radical reconstruction of a standard vehicle – very often lowering the floor area and changing the exhaust system, fuel tank, suspension and brake lines – and this should always be done by a specialist conversion manufacturer. This area of the automotive industry is currently undergoing improved regulation, so look out for a manufacturer who can explain about type approval, testing of the wheelchair tie-down and occupant restraint systems (WTORS), the new European Whole Vehicle Type Approval and a new UK standard for WAVs (PAS 2012) which will be introduced this year.
All reputable WAV manufacturers and suppliers offer a free demonstration service which allows the client time to see and try the vehicle in their own surroundings and with all their relevant equipment. The demonstration gives all users the chance to assess if the vehicle meets their full requirements. And the driver/assistant can put the vehicle through its paces, make sure it is suitable for the type of journeys mostly undertaken and ensure it will fit on the driveway or in the garage.
Whether buying a new or used WAV, don’t assume all conversions with the same model name are the same specification; they will all be different and specific to each conversion manufacturer. Make sure you’ve got a good warranty and that the supplier will be able to supply specialist spare parts should you require them in future.
As far as funding options go, private customers can either go for ownership or use the Motability leasing scheme (currently 5 years for WAVs); organisations and charities often use contract hire, leasing or outright purchase. WAVs are also available for short- to long-term hire from a small number of specialist WAV hire companies.
Whatever your needs, there’s plenty of choice in the UK to keep your motoring.
Linda Ling is a former Chairman and now Administrator of WAVCA, the Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle Converters’ Association, and has worked in the industry since 1984: