Wheelchair Van Buyer’s Guide

Buyers Guide for WheelchairThe automobile industry has exploded in the last decade, with dozens of new models appearing every year. Technology changes so rapidly that your car might be out of date before you even finish your car payments. Car buying is a stressful task no matter how you approach it.

Moreover, if you’re shopping for a vehicle to accommodate a wheelchair or other mobility equipment, your car shopping experience can become quite complicated in no time. In addition to standard decisions to deliberate when choosing your next vehicle, you must take into consideration your needs and your available budget.

Luckily, much of the complexity in the decision-making process stems from the fact that technology has provided car and van buyers with many more appealing safety and convenience features, as well as assistive technology that has made owning and operating an automobile a possibility for a growing number of individuals with disabilities.

We’re here to help you understand your options and make the best decision you can for you and your family. By making a smart, informed decision, you’re making a sound investment in your family’s future. Let’s take a look at how to buy a wheelchair-compatible van with the best possible information.

Step 1: Asking the Right Questions

Before you even look at a real vehicle, you should make sure you know what your requirements are. Spending tens of thousands of dollars on a wheelchair van that doesn’t actually improve your life or meet your most important needs would be a tragedy. And with the number of options available, you have every reason to make the best decision possible.

requirements of van

To focus on your requirements, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many passengers will you be transporting?

Don’t just count your normal day-to-day transportation needs. Take into account the unlikely scenarios as well. Then weight these two against each other to come up with your ideal seating capacity. Even one circumstance of insufficient passenger space might be enough of an inconvenience to make you regret the purchase of a specific vehicle. Then again, you might not be able to afford the biggest possible vehicle, so finding a compromise will help to make sure you’re getting the most out of the investment you can afford to make.

When you’re deciding on seating capacity, make sure to account for the times when you’ll have a wheelchair loaded. An eight-passenger minivan will really only hold five if the middle seat is removed to store the wheelchair.


  • How will you be entering the vehicle?

If you require the use of a wheelchair, will you also be driving the vehicle? If so, you will want to find a van that allows for side entry, so you can use a transfer seat to get into driving position. If you’re not driving the vehicle, might you be able to save a little money and use a cheaper rear-entry system?


  • Will you be driving? What adaptive aids will you require?

The subject of driving the vehicle has ramifications on many more decisions beyond how you enter the vehicle. You will also have to identify the adaptive aids you will require to operate the vehicle safely. Advances in technology have opened new worlds of possibilities, so make sure you research the most current options. We’ll discuss a few in detail in a later section.

Preparing your list of required adaptive equipment will help make the shopping process easier on everyone involved, and it will help to ensure that you don’t miss anything important.


Understand What Will and Won’t Work for You

The questions in the previous section sound like a bit of a best-case scenario wish list for your vehicle. Be sure to also consider your unique storage and space accommodation requirements. Even if you have the budget for the biggest and the best, the biggest might be too big for you, and the best might introduce unforeseen complications into your transportation routine.

To understand what will truly work for you, ask yourself the following questions to narrow down what will work for your specific situation.

  • What are the dimensions of your wheelchair?

Knowing the dimensions of your wheelchair will make it easier for you to determine whether or not a vehicle fits your needs right off the bat. If you can’t get your wheelchair into the vehicle, it will be of no use to you whatsoever. When determining these dimensions, make sure to put yourself in the wheelchair — literally, if that will help get accurate numbers. If you’re going to be sitting in the wheelchair while you enter the vehicle, you’ll need to be able to get through the door. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s the most important consideration, so don’t overlook it.

determine dimensions of wheelchair van

  • Where will you be parking this vehicle?

Will you be pulling this car into the garage, leaving it in a driveway, or parking it in the street? If you’re parking it in a garage, is the garage big enough to accommodate the van? Can you get into the vehicle while it’s parked in the garage? Will you ever need to get into the van while it’s in the garage?

If you’re parking in a driveway, will you have room to deploy the ramp or lift to get into the vehicle? If you’re on the street, which side will the ramp or lift need to be installed on for you to safely enter your vehicle without putting yourself out into traffic?


  • Will the necessary equipment require a full passenger van, or can you make use of a different type of passenger vehicle?

You may not know the answer to this question before you get out and look at vehicles, but it’s an important consideration to keep in mind. On one hand, smaller vehicles are less expensive to purchase, so you might save money on the total package by passing up the full-size van.

On the other hand, your adaptive equipment might be more expensive to install in a smaller vehicle because of the labor involved to make it fit. If you think you might be able to get away with a smaller vehicle, consult a sales professional to get a sense of what the differences in cost might be.


Step 2: Knowing what to look at and what to look for when looking at prospective vehicles

Once you have your personal requirements figured out and your shopping list firmed up, it’s time to go out on the lot to look at some options. Here are some crucial questions to ask while you’re actually looking at a vehicle:

  • What’s the ideal location for the wheelchair user to sit in the vehicle?

If the wheelchair user will be driving, the answer to this question is easy. But if someone else will be driving the vehicle, will the wheelchair user be sitting in the front passenger seat, or somewhere in the rear of the vehicle? As you look at different vehicle options, consider the comfort level of each option.

Will the wheelchair user transfer out of their seat and into a car seat, or will they remain seated and have their wheelchair be secured within the vehicle? If they will transfer into a car seat, will it need to rotate or swing in any way to make that transfer as easy as possible?

  • Are all of the essential car control functions within acceptable reach of all of the vehicle’s occupants?

Driving aids will help to ensure that an individual with a disability can properly and safely operate the vehicle in traffic. But with the aide in place, will either the driver or the passenger be able to reach the HVAC and stereo controls? These may not be quite as critical as the driving controls, but they can be a key determining factor between two otherwise similarly equipped vehicles.


  • Can the dealer install necessary equipment if their current inventory is not properly equipped?

Because of the nature of physical disabilities, no two individuals’ needs will be exactly the same. Even the most well stocked dealer might not have a vehicle with the exact combination of technology and equipment that you require. How easily will they be able to modify a vehicle to suit your needs? How much time will it take, and what is the financial cost? Wheelchair vans are rarely a one-size-fits-all scenario, so finding a dealer that can render the customization process painless is a valuable dealer to know.

dealer customize van

Step 3: Understanding your adaptive technology options

In order to work with the dealer to install your necessary equipment, you’ll have to match your needs with the available technology on the market. Let’s take a look at the most common adaptive equipment and assistive technology.

Ramps and Lifts

The two most popular options for entering a wheelchair van are via ramp and via lift. There are two kinds of ramps, in-floor and fold out. An in-floor ramp will slide out from under the floor of the van, so it won’t take up any interior space when it isn’t in use. A fold out van will reside next to the sliding minivan door, which necessitates removal of the center seats, reducing overall capacity.

A lift is an ideal choice for an individual who requires a higher weight capacity to accommodate a heavier wheelchair. Lifts could also potentially offer autonomous use for the individual in the wheelchair, greatly enhancing personal freedom. Lifts require lots of hardware, so if you wish to use a lift, you will almost always find them in full-size passenger vans.

Side Entry vs. Rear Entry

Entering the vehicle through the side will make it possible for the wheelchair user to get into the driver seat or the front passenger seat. However, it will also require that you park in a van-accessible handicapped parking space with adequate room beside the van to deploy the ramp or lift for entry and exit.

Entering the vehicle through the rear allows you to use any parking space, and usually provides a much more natural sitting position within the vehicle without having to maneuver inside. It will be more difficult to get up into the driver or passenger seat, if it’s even possible at all. However, rear entry vans tend to be less expensive.

Transfer Seats

The term “transfer seat” refers not to the seat itself, which is usually original to the vehicle, but to the mechanism installed in the seat base. The transfer seat base allows the seat to rotate and face the back of the vehicle. Once you have transferred to the seat, it will rotate back into place so you can be in position to operate the vehicle. Because the seat itself is original to the vehicle, all of the power adjustment controls remain intact.

Hand Controls and Left-Foot Accelerator Pedals

These two items fall under the category of driving aids. Hand control systems have progressed tremendously in complexity and ease of use, allowing millions of Americans to safely operate a motor vehicle.

Hand controls allow the driver to steer, accelerate, and brake with the use of specific knobs and controls installed on the steering wheel. Some systems are even portable, allowing the owner to carry them and operate any automatic-transmission vehicle with just a few minutes if installation.

Buying Advice

Buying New vs. Buying Used

Once you’ve identified your needs and narrowed your targets to the options that will work for you, the time will come to make the purchase. The first question will be whether to buy new or used. A lot of this can come down to what your can afford, but the same principles apply to wheelchair-accessible vans that we would normally follow in the new and used automotive markets at large.

The biggest difference is that wheelchair vans contain more hardware and moving parts. These parts require regular attention and maintenance, so you’ll want a thorough inspection not only of the health of the vehicle but also of the adaptive technology.

Considering the advancements been made in just the last few years, it’s reasonable to think that you’ll be missing out on some truly useful and convenient features if you buy a vehicle that’s a few years old. Of course, your budget should be the final arbiter of whether or not you can purchase a brand new vehicle.

Advancements in Van buying Guide

Financial Assistance

If you’re watching the costs pile up and you’re wondering if you’re going to be able to afford it, you aren’t alone. Thankfully, state and federal programs exist to help individuals and families afford the vehicles that will help them get around more easily.

Medicare and Medicaid can help in certain circumstances, after a certified professional has performed an evaluation. The Social Security Administration and the Veterans Affairs Administration both have programs and funding available to those who qualify. Help is out there, so a little research will go a long way.

Getting Started

Now that we have covered all of the bases for how to choose a wheelchair van, take a look at the options available here at Rohrer Bus. For more information, don’t hesitate to contact us. Our helpful staff will give you the best possible advice and service to get you on the road in no time.