Wheelchair Van Shopping: A Guide For Parents

First, a cautionary tale--a true story, conveyed by a grateful father to the company that sold the wheelchair van to his family...

His wife and young daughter, who is in a wheelchair, were headed back in the family wheelchair van to their Texas home after a church mission trip when the unthinkable happened. While traveling at highway speed, his wife changed lanes to pass a slower car. At the same time, another driver recklessly passed her at about 90 mph. She swerved right to avoid the faster vehicle, and the over-correction flipped the wheelchair van three times. When the dust settled, the handicap van landed right-side-up on the shoulder of the road. The wheelchair (which was secured with a superior-quality restraint system) didn't budge. He was very pleased to tell us that "everyone made it home alive." There were a few bumps and bruises, and his wife suffered a broken tailbone. He believes it was the attention to detail in the restraint system's design that saved his little girl's life. Thanks to the safety of the van, his daughter was able to start her freshman year at Dallas Baptist University the following fall.

Minivans and full-size vans become the ultimate wheelchair accessible transportation through wheelchair van conversions. Conversion designs, which have improved over several decades, now make accessible vans safer, more reliable, more convenient, and easier to use than ever before. The most innovative conversion designs have given rise to an expanding market of surprisingly affordable handicap accessible minivans--great news for the parent of a child with disabilities that require a wheelchair. If you're pondering the purchase of an adapted van, the information below should prove helpful:

  • Eyes on the Size: While it's best to work with a mobility consultant at a trustworthy online or local mobility dealership, you should know what to look for, ask about, and expect when you begin your search. The consultant should begin by gathering crucial information before presenting a van for your consideration. 

    Typically, a wheelchair accessible minivan should be of sufficient size for a child in a juvenile wheelchair and a teenager in a standard wheelchair. That said, certain sizes do matter when choosing the ideal van for your family. 

    Speaking of family, that's the first "size" that matters. If you have an especially large family (5-7 children), you'll need a van with seating to accommodate everyone (possibly including additional friends and extended family.) In this instance, a full-size van might be the better choice. An accessible minivan can easily accommodate a family of five with one or even two wheelchair passengers. Here's where the access point becomes critical. 

    Your child's condition and wheelchair size help determine the access point on the van. If your child's disability requires a ventilator, feeding tube, or other equipment like an IV pole, a rear entry handicapped van, may serve you better. Rear entry access allows you to push the wheelchair van and peripheral equipment up the ramp directly to the tie-downs or docking system, where the wheelchair is positioned directly behind the driver and front-passenger seats. Because of its wider, higher opening, rear entry access may also work better for your tall, brawny teenage son with a sports injury and a larger wheelchair.

    Side entry conversions work best for children in wheelchairs that can be maneuvered into position behind the front seats--or even into the front-passenger position (only if the child meets the requirements for that particular seating position. More on this later.) 

  • Your Seating Scheme: When you determine the best wheelchair position for your child (in back of the van, in the middle of the van, in the front-passenger seat), you can then consider the seating configuration for the rest of your van. Will a parent or caretaker need to be seated next to the child? Where should your other children sit to best interact with the guest of honor while traveling?

    Adaptive seating allows for a variety of seat locations, which you should discuss with your mobility consultant. Standard vehicle seating and additional jump seats can be secured strategically in the van to accommodate your needs. A portable/removable front-passenger seat with a wheelchair docking system gives that prized position wheelchair access, though, as mentioned earlier, your child's size and condition matters. Several states have laws restricting the size of a child who can ride in the front-passenger seat. Fifty pounds or more is most often recommended, but the child with disabilities in that position must be able to withstand the force of a deployed airbag. If your child’s physical condition is frail or sensitive, the safest location is mid-cabin. Stay informed--take time to go over your state’s seat belt laws for wheelchair passengers. 

  • Prepare for Tomorrow Today: Children grow. Conditions change. As you shop wheelchair vans for sale, keep an eye toward the future. If possible, equip the wheelchair van for years of suitability and accessibility when you buy it, so your child can grow into it with minimum--if any--modifications.

    Shop wheelchair vans with confidence, knowing that you can now make an informed decision as you work with a mobility consultant to select the ideal accessible transportation for your family.