Part 1 - the Revelation
In May 2005, we took a trip to Santa Fe and Taos NM with another couple (the folks that were in the story from Cranky Reasons #10). Since we were going to be doing a lot of driving, I arranged for a handicapped accessible minivan rental to use throughout the trip.
Despite the fact that Skip had been wheelchair-bound for a number of years, we'd never purchased a modified vehicle that could accommodate her wheelchair without transferring from the wheelchair into the car. In the year or so before this trip, she was no longer able to stand and pivot for transferring, so we'd taken to using a long transfer board to get her from her chair into the front seat of our Toyota Camry station wagon. Her power chair was foldable. In order to get it into the back of the wagon, I'd remove both 25-lb batteries, fold the chair and heave its 86-lb body in, along with the batteries and seat cushion. It's lucky I'm strong!
I figured if we didn't have a wheelchair accessible van in New Mexico, Skip would be far more constrained to get out and about. It was such a hassle to get the wheelchair in and out of the car, it would really limit the likelihood of her getting out for sightseeing and shopping whenever the mood struck us.
When we landed in Albuquerque, the Wheelchair Getaways van was there with someone to show us how to anchor the wheelchair, adjust the tie-downs and make sure we were all set. We received warnings about the van's low ground clearance, which was quite warranted as we scraped bottom whenever we went over a speed bump.
This van was an absolute revelation! Never had it been so easy to get Skip in and out of a vehicle. And, without the occasional transfers gone bad at home. The front passenger seat had been removed, so Skip was right up front for the best possible sightseeing view. Tie downs were relatively simple and straightforward.
Part 2 - the Search
Almost from the first moment in the van, I knew we'd be looking for a handicapped-accessible vehicle when we got home.
I really had little clue what our options were. We'd experienced the side-entry ramp van in NM. We'd used three varieties of wheelchair van cabs in Las Vegas - full-size van with lift, minivan with rear entry ramp and minivan with side entry ramp. I started prowling the internet to see what was available.
A lift van looked to be the cheapest option but was not a good choice for a number of reasons: the high roof and full sized van would not fit in our garage, the unlowered floor placed the wheelchair passenger's head above the vehicle's windows making visibility very poor, the vehicle was just too large for my tastes and the lift process was very slow and tedious compared to the speed and ease of a ramp. Minivans with rear-entry ramps seemed that the modification took over the entire back of the van and the wheelchair rider was exiled to the back like a second-class citizen. I wanted Skip sitting beside me when we were out on the road. Side ramp vans like the one we'd used on the NM trip seemed the most attractive. The vehicle would fit in the garage. Since we had a two car garage with only one car, the ramp could come right out into the middle of the garage for easy access no matter what the weather.
We found a handicapped van dealer about 45 minutes from home. One Saturday, we drove over to see what they had. Sticker shock cannot begin to describe my reaction! A new Toyota Sienna modified van was $45,000! A used one with 55,000 miles was still about $35k. We were told that Toyota would finance modified vans with a 10-year car loan to make the monthly payment more affordable. I just couldn't envision a big car payment for 10 years.
So, I spent some more time prowling around the internet looking at new and used Chrysler Town and Country modified vans. It seems that most accessible vans are Chryslers. I really didn't want to buy a Chrysler. But, the prices seemed less stratospheric.
Around this time, I found a classified ad at the back of the NMSS magazine showing an accessible Honda Element. This seemed far more attractive an option than a minivan. Smaller than a minivan with Honda reliability. I went out to the website of Freedom Motors (fminow.com) to check out the Element and liked what I saw. So, I got in touch with them.
Soon thereafter, I heard from their salesman assigned to the northeast. Freedom Motors is based in Battle Creek MI and apparently they had salespeople travel around with sample vehicles to demonstrate them to potential buyers. During our initial phone call, he described the options available and their costs. You could get a half-cut, with the floor only lowered on one side, a full-cut with it fully lowered side to side, the ramp on either side and a power or manual ramp. We were interested. We set up an appointment for his next trip to New England. He pulled the Element into the garage. He showed us some of the features, we got Skip into it with her chair and took it out for a spin. Wow! We were sold. We got the ball rolling to buy one right then and there.
At the time, the process for purchasing an XWav was to buy the Honda Element from Battle Creek Honda and the modification from Freedom Motors. Looking at their website today, it appears they typically sell the entire vehicle now. We had to wait about 12 weeks from point of purchase to delivery as they didn't begin the modifications until we bought the Element.
To come - Part 3 - Life with the XWav and Part 4 - Pros and Cons