How Modified Minivans Keep Those with Disabilities on the Move

·3 min read
Photo credit: Illustration by Gianna Meola - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Illustration by Gianna Meola - Car and Driver

From the January 2022 issue of Car and Driver.

"It's wicked important," says Mark Whitehouse, a retired driving-rehab instructor. "Wicked important." He's gotten rather fired up while we're talking, his mellow Florida-tinged accent turning steadily more Massachusetts over the course of the conversation. "Picture you can't drive," he says, "can't drive to work, to the store, to socialize. You're stuck. When you drive your car, it feels great, doesn't it? Feels free."

Whitehouse believes everyone should have a chance at that feeling, even if vehicles need to be modified or people taught different ways to drive. That's what driving rehab is: a combination of occupational therapy, doctors' input, modified vehicles, and specialized training so people who have physical or cognitive disabilities can get behind the wheel.

It's not a new concept. In the early '60s, an engineer named Ralph Braun developed a lift system on a Jeep for himself, and other wheelchair users expressed interest. By the '70s, BraunAbility was modifying Dodge vans for disabled drivers. Today it is one of the world's largest manufacturers of accessible-vehicle conversions. "Braun is considered the father of adapted-vehicle mobility technology," says Danny Langfield, CEO of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA). "Ralph started it all."

Modifications have come a long way since Braun's Jeep. Dodge vans have given way to minivans, which offer expansive floor space and a large door opening. Companies like BraunAbility and Vantage Mobility International (VMI) stay in contact with OEMs so they can quickly bring accessible versions to market. VMI's most recent triumph is a conversion of an all-wheel-drive Toyota Sienna hybrid. Customers want all-wheel drive, but SUVs are harder to lower and offer less flexible space, so minivans remain the adapted vehicle of choice.

I think minivans are better than SUVs anyhow, but younger drivers aren't always stoked on van life. "If you're 20, coming out of college, you might not want to be in a minivan," says Joan Cramer, an occupational therapist and driver-rehabilitation specialist at the Next Street, a driving school in Connecticut. For folks who just need a little assistance with steering or pedal extension, almost any car can be modified, but for those who need more room, you're looking at a minivan. Usually even the college kids admit it can be fun when they drive one. "I had one client come in all excited about his van," Cramer says. "He told me, 'My boys are making it a pad in the back. Gonna have a couch, a TV, and a stereo.'" Ooh, customcustomized van, a little historical hat tip to the Dodge vans that started this.

I wondered whether modern driver assists are making adapted driving easier. Everyone I talked with said autonomous driving, if it ever matures, will change the game, but in the meantime, technologies they're excited about include automatic high-beams and electronic hand brakes. "The newer cars are a double-edged sword," Langfield says. "On one hand, automatic features like rain-sensing wipers and standard backup cameras are a real boon, but on the other, there's added complexity and cost."

The financial aspect can be daunting. While a simple modification like a tri-pin steering device—which allows someone with diminished grip ability to use a steering wheel—might cost around $200, a full vehicle conversion could reach six figures. Insurance rarely covers such expenses, but manufacturer rebates and government programs can help. Connecting clients with financial solutions is a goal of the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists, a national organization founded in 1977 whose purpose, shared with NMEDA, is to spread the word that assistance is available, and that a disability doesn't have to mean the end of driving.

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