For all the perpetual talk of new transportation technology, of rapid transit system improvements, bullet trains and space travel for ordinary citizens, the United States very much remains a land to be driven — so much so that people without access to automotive vehicles, either as drivers or passengers, miss both once-in-a-lifetime and everyday opportunities.
Working to keep America’s roads accessible to all are the nation’s mobility dealers and the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA), whose annual conference takes place in Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 6-8.
Last year was a busy one for the organization, as the industry hosted a hugely ambitious consumer giveaway in conjunction with its first-ever National Mobility Awareness Month in May. The natural question for 2013: What will the industry do as a follow-up?
Building on an Enormous Success
National Mobility Awareness Month was a major marketing project last year, designed to be part education, part celebration.
“The idea behind National Mobility Awareness Month,” says Dave Hubbard, executive director of NMEDA, “is awareness of mobility products and where to get them, and solutions to help people with their everyday lives, and automotive freedom for people with disabilities.”
The centerpiece of Mobility Awareness Month was a giveaway of three wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Consumers were invited to explain, via text, photos and videos, why they wanted to win a rampequipped minivan fitted to their personal needs and specifications. Visitors to the contest Web site could vote for their favorites.
The response to the contest was of the “in your wildest dreams” variety. When voting began, the response was so overwhelming that the Web site experienced technical difficulties.
“We were surprised by how many people entered because there were over 1,700 entries,” Hubbard says. “That is incredible, the number of people who were willing to tell their stories. And then we had over 2 million people voting online, another incredible story.”
The contest winners were the Davert family of Bay City, Mich.; Alberto Cruz of Willimantic, Conn.; and Ron Miner of Hodgkins, Ill., who later starred in a video about the driver assessment process as he was fitted for his new minivan (nmeda.org). But Hubbard says the project took on a life of its own once friends and family began rallying around the contestants.
“There were entire communities that got behind a contestant, and that part of it was just amazing,” Hubbard says. “Even after the contest, people continued on. They got it all started and got their networks started and everything else like that, and continued on with their own fundraisers and were able to get their own transportation. I think it was a win-win for everybody.”
Building on that win-win, Hubbard says the technical glitches of last year have been fixed, and that this year’s contest will encourage more customer interaction.
“We’ve adjusted the contest,” Hubbard says, “and put into place so that this year instead of just getting a code from a dealer or your Facebook friends, we’re going to have you answer some questions and hopefully get more consumer involvement in it.”
Consumers can start submitting their contest entries on Feb. 25, with voting beginning on March 11. National Mobility Awareness Month will once again be celebrated in May.
An Opportunity to Educate
The contest, Hubbard adds, made consumers with disabilities more aware of the adaptive automotive technology available to help them drive or travel as passengers.
“We got quite a bit of feedback that people had just not heard of mobility products,” he says.
This year, NMEDA is hoping to reach out to another large demographic that could benefit from these products.
“One of the things we’re trying to improve on this year is getting to the senior market and making them aware,” Hubbard says. “If you have a spinal cord injury or you’re born with a birth defects, you
generally have experts around you that can guide you in a direction and get you information.
“But if you’re a senior growing into your disability, you don’t know about these solutions. You’ve never had an occasion to learn about them. These are the people we need to let know these solutions exist.”
The need for education extends to professionals, Hubbard explains. Full-day NMEDA Comprehensive Automotive Mobility Solutions (CAMS) courses are designed to teach healthcare professionals — including those who work closely with consumers who have disabilities — about the products that can get patients into their cars and their communities.
“We’re taking OTs and PTs specifically through what the mobility industry is, and the solutions that are available,” Hubbard says. “We let them know what types of disabilities they’re likely to encounter, what the prognosis is for those disabilities — in other words, how do they progress — and what should they look for. Because when you’re looking at a disability, at one stage it requires one kind of equipment, but the (consumer’s condition) may be deteriorating, or it may improve.”
CAMS courses qualify for CEUs with RESNA, the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (ADED), the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Local mobility dealers support the CAMS classes by bringing in automotive equipment and doing product demonstrations.
“They get to see how it works, push the buttons,” Hubbard notes. “It’s an interesting class. The feedback we’ve gotten from classes we’ve already given is people have really enjoyed taking it.”
Keeping an Eye on Funding
Consumers and clinicians aren’t the only ones who benefit from education; so do government officials who attend events such as NMEDA’s annual conference.
“We’re very concerned about what the fiscal cliff is doing to funding,” Hubbard says. “It’s already cutting into government travel; there are fewer government representatives coming into the conference this year, which is just a small thing. But when programs start to get cut or compromised, that’s a concern. Nothing has really happened yet, but we’re keeping an eye on it.”
Government officials who don’t attend the NMEDA conference miss out on education that could better position them to understand the value of the technology and of supporting this healthcare niche. Because so much adaptive automotive funding comes from the federal government, Hubbard says the organization is carefully watching the funding landscape.
“We’re trying real hard to work with the VA (Veterans Affairs) and with vocational rehab departments around the country to make sure that people do get what they need,” he explains. “At this point, we’re hoping third-party funding holds up. That’s what a lot of people count on to attain some freedom.”
NMEDA’s legal counsel is also a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., so he keeps members updated on what’s happening in the nation’s capital.
“We’re working very hard with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is a large area for our dealers,” Hubbard says. “Some of our dealers have as much as 20 to 25 percent of their business go through the VA, so we need to pay attention to that and make sure we stay on top of changes there. We just don’t want to get blindsided by them.”
As the economy continues its recovery, Hubbard says NMEDA members report their new-vehicle sales are increasing in number, and used-vehicle sales are also strong.
And as for government officials whose travel budgets have been cut, Hubbard says NMEDA members are working to fill the education gap by individually talking to local legislators. It’s all part of the effort to make sure a lack of education doesn’t lead to a domino effect of less support for the mobility market.
“That’s the association’s job, to see that doesn’t happen,” Hubbard says. “If they can’t come to us, we’ll go them.”