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Lessons I’ve learned deciding on car modifications for a wheelchair passenger

Buying a modified vehicle is a lesson in compromise. Cost vs functionality, availability vs waiting for the perfect fit out designed just for you and your needs.

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community Sarah Shaw

I'm one of the many people with a muscle wasting condition that hasn't quite got a name yet or official diagnosis, I live with my wife and Friday our furry companion. I first started to notice changes in my body in 2008 so I have been living with this degenerative condition for more than a decade now. I have used a wheelchair as my mode of getting around since 2014. I love getting out and about in the community and am interested in Theatre, Music and the Arts. I also keep an eagle eye on what is happening in current affairs across the country. I worked in the Federal Public Service for twenty-six years and retired due to invalidity about two years ago.

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Buying a modified vehicle is a lesson in compromise. Cost vs functionality, availability vs waiting for the perfect fit out designed just for you and your needs. I’ve just purchased my second vehicle after a freak flash flooding incident killed my last ride so I thought I would share a few lessons I have learnt along the way.

As a large power wheelchair user, the bulkiness of my wheelchair automatically precludes me from purchasing the Japanese models from Nissan and Toyota which are designed specifically for wheelchair users. So, first thing you need to look at when assessing cars is the ramp load safety weighting and dimensions of the wheelchair space in the cars fit out.

The second thing to consider is your lifestyle. Where are you wanting this car to take you?

For me the main considerations were that my partner and I holiday several times a year and we have an enormous amount of gear that travels with us. The car had to do more than just transport me and my wife short distances. For me this precluded most of the smaller conversion models on the market.

Another consideration was parking, HiAce and Mercedes Benz Sprinter conversions gave me the room I required but at the cost of not being able to park in most undercover parking spaces around the city. Making going out and parking conveniently problematic so I ruled these out.

Next thing to consider is where do you want to be in the vehicle. As a rule of thumb, the closer you are to the front of the car the smoother the ride you will have and the better visibility. There is nothing worse than feeling like you are on a never-ending roller-coaster ride where you can’t even see what is going on. If you can, always ask for a reasonable test drive in the proposed vehicle so that you can check this out for yourself. Unfortunately, the closer to the front you sit the more expensive the fit out so this something to be weighed up carefully.

Now automated ramp vs manual ramp. My first car had a fancy automated ramp that worked fine when it worked but was slow to descend and ascend. When it broke down it meant we were stuck with an open car that couldn’t close or go anywhere without mechanical intervention. So, our second car has a manual ramp which is spring loaded and extremely easy to quickly put up and down and I am not constantly worried is it going to work this time.

Wheelchair restraints vs a docking station? My first car had a docking station installed so I had the bolt installed on my power wheelchair. I think for users who have a smaller wheelchair with not much of an undercarriage a docking station is fantastic. It reduces the work of the carer in having to put restraints on and provides an increase in independence in some circumstances. For me I found that the bolt continually got caught on door ledges etc and getting caught like that several times has made me go back to restraints.

We have installed electric front restraints which has lessened the amount of work for my partner considerably as they can now be applied prior to me moving on to the ramp.

This has removed the need for her to contort herself into weird positions in small spaces and lessened the amount of stress the tie down process takes on her body considerably.

As far as wheelchair restraints are concerned, we have tried both those that are spring loaded and those that are just straps that need to be tightened manually to tie the wheelchair into place. The spring loaded are much easier to apply and provide a much smoother and importantly safer ride for the wheelchair user.

I did consider installing a turn out seat or a six-way seat into this model to give me a place I could sit in the car other than my wheelchair as I am still able to transfer. Ultimately, I decided the benefit for me did not justify the cost. If I went on long road trips though this might be a different story.

Lastly, I was devastated when my first car was flooded and envisioned months of being stranded while I had to wait through the six to nine-month process of converting a car from scratch. Luckily, I was able to find one recently converted with low kilometres that meets my needs and is actually better than my first car in some respects. So, I guess I’d urge you to look at both the new and second-hand markets in your quest, your perfect car could be out there.

Happy Motoring!!!

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