Americans have a love affair with the car, and while Henry Ford once famoulsy offered the Model T “in any color so long as it’s black,” today’s car makers manufacture a plethora of models to suit any and all drivers’ needs and wants. Not surprisingly, patients needing auto access solutions have an equally broad set of requirements and tastes.
Fortunately, technology and an increasing demand for services from a growing demographic have catapulted the vehicle accessibility solutions market into a way for HME providers to help a growing customer base and in some cases, to create new revenue streams.
The vehicle accessibility market provides solutions for people who have special needs when it comes to entering or driving a vehicle, or toting a large powered mobility device (PMD), such as a power wheelchair or scooter.
“Whereas 10 years ago there was just one type of outside vehicle lift for a power chair and one for a scooter, now we provide dozens of variations that consider chair weight, vehicle type (often a smaller car today than 10 years ago), and patient usability, which determines the best securement method,” says Paul Johnson, vice president of Sales and Marketing, Harmar, a manufacturer of mobility and accessibility devices. Harmar offers five categories of solutions for PMD lifts: lifts that are outside the vehicle, inside the vehicle, a hybrid style, micro (lightweight) lifts and truck lifts. This variety covers the majority of lift needs and gives providers new revenue opportunities.
“Interestingly, between all the types of vehicles and mobility devices, there are more than 5 million possible combinations,” he says.
To grasp how optimizing lifts for patient use has grown, just within the last 12 months, Johnson says that his company has expanded its vehicle lift line to include four new truck lifts (from one); four hybrid lifts (from one); new inside boom lifts, including a three-axis solution and a low-profile option for smaller SUVs; and all-new lines of heavy duty outside lifts to handle 400 pounds ,and low-profile lifts to decrease total weight and improve rear vehicle line of sight.
“There have been many innovations all centered around meeting the needs of the customer and today’s heavier chairs/smaller vehicle combinations,” he says.
For potential customers seeking solutions that are outside the scope of installing additional, single pieces of equipment, a vehicle modification or complete conversion might be necessary to meet customer needs. In this case, HME providers can refer these customers to vehicle conversion specialists.
Vantage Mobility International (VMI), a pioneer in manufacturing wheelchair accessible vans, wheelchair lifts and handicap vehicle accessories, offers many solutions for people with disabilities. Customers will find independent transportation solutions or a means of transporting people who can’t do so themselves.
Obviously more expensive than simply adding a lift to a vehicle, VMI’s wheelchair accessible minivans are converted Toyota Siennas, Honda Odysseys and Chrysler Town and Country minivans, each with different options and features.
VMI recognizes that customer needs for transportation can vary greatly, so VMI uses a specialized dealer network to sell wheelchair accessible vans.
“While our dealer network is similar to the automotive dealer model, our dealers are not only experts on the products they sell, but they are also specialists in helping customers find the best fit for their needs, budget, etc.,” says Monique McGivney, director of Corporate Communications for VMI. “Our dealers will spend a significant amount of time with our customers, understanding their level of disability, how they plan on using their transportation, who will be using the van, etc., and then make recommendations based on that feedback. The easiest product to modify is the minivan, because of the features the van already has equipped, such as wide power sliding passenger door, ample room, and moderate price point.”
VMI’s customers include a wide range of people who need help getting.
“While most of our customers are in power wheelchairs, some are in scooters and manual wheelchairs. Our customers are amputees, or have spinal cord injuries, or have diseases such as Muscular Dystrophy, MS, and ALS,” McGivney says.
McGivney says that the top product-specific questions VMI receives from potential customers include:
Q: Can I drive from your wheelchair accessible vans? Can I drive your vans from my wheelchair?
A: Yes, to both questions
Q: What are the dimensions of your vans and what are the headroom, ramp capacity, and door-opening width?
A: Dimensions vary between vans. Visit VMI.com for more information.
Q: What vans do you convert?
A: Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Chrysler/fullsize-Ford econoline.
Q: Can I tow something with your wheelchair accessible minivans?
A: No, if customers need to tow something, full-size vans are recommended.
Q: Can your vans accommodate more than one wheelchair?
A: In most cases, yes. It depends on the van and the size of the chairs.
“The VMI dealer network comes up with solutions to 90 percent of customer requests,” says McGivney. “The requests that are not doable either have to do with safety or sheer physics. If the request could endanger the customer’s life or driving capability, our dealers will not accommodate the request.
“And there are some requests that just don’t work,” she continues. “For example, some people want to fit multiple wheelchairs in modified vehicles. This all depends on the size of the wheelchair, and the interior space of the van. There are some combinations of wheelchairs and vans that would only accommodate one wheelchair, but I have also seen up to three power chairs in one of our Honda Odyssey Northstar vans.”
Understand your customers
HME providers must educate themselves about vehicle accessibility so customers understand the best possible solutions for their needs. Johnson says it’s also prudent to ask the following questions to get an understanding of other possible needs:
- How are you going to get your power mobility device (PMD) home?
- What mobility requirements do you have outside the home, including needs to go to the doctor’s office, the mall, visit family members?
- What accessibility challenges might you have at the home that might cause you to be limited in use of your new PMD?
Johnson reminds providers that while vehicle accessibility products can be big ticket items with excellent margins. A good manufacturer will train you on the product and help you grow your business with sales training, demonstrations and co-op advertising