When a Minivan Is the Answer


In her 20 years as a wheelchair user, Sheila Costanzi has seen it all… and has plenty of stories to tell.

Her daughter was not yet 4 months old when an ATV accident shattered three of Sheila's vertebrae. Since then, Sheila has been in and out of different wheelchairs and in and out of different vehicles — and she's developed preferences along the way. In fairness to the vehicles, it takes a lot of energy to keep up with Sheila. These days, she's on the board of directors for the Lehigh Valley (Pa.) Center for Independent Living, works with the Freewheelers sports group, is a champion tennis player and plays basketball.

And while at first glance the right vehicle for Sheila may appear to be a car, her case is the perfect example of how considering an entire lifestyle is the right thing to do before recommending a vehicle.

Dealer Spotlight: Accessible Vans & Mobility, Bethlehem, Pa., www.accessvansandmobility.com

Under the Weather

Sheila owns a 1999 Plymouth Voyager minivan with a wheelchair lift. She drives via hand controls after transferring from her everyday rigid wheelchair into the minivan's driver's seat. This minivan replaced Sheila's first Voyager minivan, which she had for 10 years and whose durability impressed her.

At 5'4" and 110 lbs., Sheila considers a full-sized van a bulky waste of space, not to mention gasoline. But why not go smaller still, to a car instead of a minivan?

For a couple of years, Sheila — who lives in Nazareth, Pa. — did use a folding manual chair that she put into the backseat of her car. But "taking the wheelchair in and out of a car, especially when it's freezing outside or pouring down rain — you get soaked. It's not as convenient. Sometimes (very) hot, sometimes (very) cold… and (very) cold and rain do not mix."

Her first wheelchair lift had to be operated manually, with Sheila stationed at the back of the minivan. Pennsylvania's unforgiving weather convinced her to try something different with her second minivan. "I have remote control," she says, "so I can sit at my front door and open (the minivan), so I'm not getting wet. I'm less likely to get soaked — I just run out to the car, get on the lift, get in."

On the Road Again & Again

As challenging as the local weather can be, however, there are more reasons a minivan is a better choice for Sheila than a car would be.

Consider her transportation routine. Sheila explains, "I'm all over the place; my car has 109,000 miles on it." She racks up miles in her work for Freewheelers and the Center for Independent Living. And because Sheila is an accomplished athlete, her minivan gets extra workouts driving to tournaments and practices.

A typical couple of days in the life of Sheila's accessible minivan: "I'll put my tennis chair into the car (tonight) because we play tennis every Wednesday morning. That's on top of my bike, which I'm going to be loading in my car today because I'll be riding later."

In addition to the sports chairs (basketball and tennis) and the bike that share room in the minivan, Sheila's everyday rigid chair goes along for the ride. And that's just for day-to-day activities. Road trips to tennis tournaments require even more gear.

"That's why I chose a van," Sheila says. "There's more room. When you're in a wheelchair and you have more than one, or even if you just have the one, but you're going on vacation — you have catheters that you have to take along, and a commode chair that you have to take along because a lot of the hotels don't provide them. You need room to put all these things when you're traveling somewhere. And it's so much easier for me to travel with the van rather than flying."

Because yes, Sheila has unhappy stories about airlines losing her luggage.

Traveling Companions

Helping to keep Sheila and her minivan on the road are the folks from Accessible Vans & Mobility in Bethlehem, Pa.

"They're very accommodating," Sheila says. "I call them up and say" — she jokingly affects a pitifully pleading voice — "my lift isn't working." She laughs. "They say, 'Come right on in.' They never make me wait. They're great people to work with. I go in there and joke around, because I have a really good sense of humor, and so do they. But they're professional, too. They don't try to sell me things I don't need. If they make suggestions, they're the right ones. They're not doing it just to put money in their pockets."

"Sheila demonstrates how mobility equipment can help a disabled person continue to carry on a happy, active lifestyle," says Heather Roche, marketing director of Accessible Vans & Mobility. "The best, most rewarding part of completing any automotive project is the sense of satisfaction we get in knowing that we have helped our customers gain their freedom and independence through mobility."

That kind of guidance is more important than ever given the many adaptive automotive choices that consumers have, from sedans to full-size vans, from interior and exterior lifts to built-in or portable ramps. "There is so much more now than there was 20 years ago," Sheila says. "There's so much more available." And when it's time to choose her next vehicle, she says, "I know exactly where I'm going."


This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Mobility Management.

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