Manufacturers offer physically challenged motorhomers plenty of options for the road.
By Beverly Edwards
Motorhomes have changed the way millions of people travel, but to those who have a physical disability, the motorhome is nothing short of a freedom machine.
Travel in specially equipped motorhomes has opened a new world to the physically challenged. These vehicles have made it possible for them to travel in comfort and with dignity. No longer are they beholden to family members, friends, and even strangers to come to their aid. With a properly equipped motorhome, there are few places that those confined to wheelchairs or those who must depend on walking aids cannot enjoy. Although accessible hiking trails are still a new concept, they are beginning to become more common in parks and forests.
Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1990, access for disabled persons can be found in public buildings and private businesses. Ramps and elevators have made access to most of these venues almost common. But getting there is half the battle, especially for those who want to expand their horizons to encompass the magnificent scenery this country has to offer. For thousands of disabled adventurers, motorhomes equipped for their personal needs have opened a new way of travel. Confinement is a word they no longer use.
Because there are so many degrees and types of disabilities, it’s difficult to clearly define what makes a motorhome usable and comfortable for a person with a disability. Design adaptations will depend on the specific needs of the individual.
Several motorhome manufacturers have the capacity to either build specially equipped vehicles from scratch or adapt their standard models to fulfill the needs of individuals. One of the leaders in this category is Winnebago Industries, C93.
Winnebago’s Special Vehicles division, led by Roger Lunning, Sonya Kobriger, and Fred Vinci, produces “Ability Equipped” motorhomes to help meet the needs of disabled RVers. Starting with standard floor plans and utilizing a variety of accessibility options, individuals can literally design their own units.
The procedure begins with the prospective customer filling out a questionnaire, available from any Winnebago Industries dealer or via the Internet (www.winnebagoind.com/html/products/commVehicles/ability.html). The four-page form lists numerous options that can be included on the motorhome. After the form is completed, Winnebago Industries designers help customers plan a unit made just for them without changing the structural integrity of the coach and staying within building codes. Even the range of sizes is impressive, encompassing everything from the 22-foot type C Rialta to the company’s type A units.
Undoubtedly, one of the most critical needs for disabled motorhomers is easy access. Except for the low-to-the-ground Rialta, which has a ramp, a number of lifts can be installed. If the person is going to drive the coach, access to the driver’s seat can be made easier, and hand controls may be added.
After that, potential buyers will find an impressive array of options from which to choose. Aisles can be widened, bathrooms can be equipped with raised toilet seats and, if needed, roll-in showers and shower seats can be added. Handrails can be installed for safety, as well as custom cabinets that allow access to sinks and counters, and light switches and thermostat controls that are at wheelchair level.
It’s also possible to have special hospital-type mechanical beds installed for sleeping comfort. In addition, Winnebago Industries can install an overhead transfer system to transport the disabled person onboard from one end of the coach to the other.
Four Winds International, C7457, manufactures a 34-foot Windsport type A motorhome that includes an easy-access floor plan with wide aisles. Other features include a second entrance door with a chair lift, roll-in showers, and double beds.
Although they do not receive many requests, Foretravel Inc., C236, has built units with lifts, wide aisles, accessible bathrooms, and other special features. Company engineers and sales personnel sit down with the potential customer and work with them in producing a coach that fits their needs. This can be done at the company’s Nacogdoches, Texas, manufacturing facility or through any Foretravel dealer. It usually takes four to five months for a coach to be ready for the customer.
Representatives from Country Coach Inc., C2132, reported that they don’t receive many requests for special units, but the company can move thermostat controls and light switches, widen doorways, and work with a local contractor to install hand controls and other apparatuses.
Newell Coach Corporation, C47, usually produces two or three special-order motorhomes for disabled RVers each year. Company designers and engineers meet with the potential customer to lay out a coach with everything to make living and traveling by motorhome as simple and as comfortable as possible. Since all Newell coaches are built to order (there are no standard floor plans), the space can be utilized as desired.
It goes without saying that coach conversion manufacturers can design and build almost anything to meet the needs of disabled customers, and many do. Kirwan Elmers of Custom Coach, a division of Farber Specialty Vehicles, C14, said the company builds a number of vehicles every year with wheelchair lifts, transport rails with hand controls, wider doorways, and bathrooms with two doors so others have access to assist the disabled.
Just as there are motorhome manufacturers that will outfit coaches to be accessible to those with disabilities, there are also chapters and clubs for RVers who are physically challenged. FMCA’s Achievers International chapter formed in 1986 to provide support to association members with special needs. Although most members of the Achievers International chapter are ambulatory, some use wheelchairs or motorized carts for assistance in getting around outside their motorhomes. The chapter, which boasts 225 family members, meets twice every year at FMCA international conventions, where they are parked near the main activity centers. Some members volunteer to drive golf carts to provide rides to those who need a lift now and then, while others help pass out coffee and doughnuts and ice cream during the association’s morning and afternoon get-togethers, respectively.
The Handicapped Travel Club, established in 1973, is another group that encourages RV travel for people with a wide range of disabilities. Merle Young of Fishers, Indiana, has been an active member of the club for a number of years. Mr. Young has been physically challenged since the age of 13 when he was afflicted with polio. His wife of 45 years, Mildred, also had polio at a young age.
Mr. Young talked about the conveniences that disabled motorhomers need. One is easy access to the cockpit. If there is a step up or down, it makes transferring from the wheelchair to the driver’s seat, or positioning the wheelchair behind the wheel, nearly impossible.
He also pointed out that not all physically disabled RVers are adults; many are children with special needs. Although polio has been virtually eradicated in the United States, children “” and adults “” can be stricken by muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and other incapacitating diseases. Spinal cord injuries put many youngsters in wheelchairs, while others are born with congenital problems. Many parents find it far easier to take their children on sight-seeing excursions with a properly equipped motorhome than with the more traditional family sedan or even a van. Having a bathroom on board is definitely a plus for handicapped people of any age.
According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, a number of campgrounds also have adjusted to meet the needs of disabled RVers. Many have wide, level, paved sites for those using wheelchairs, walkers, or electric scooters. Campground operators are increasingly offering recreation programs and food services designed to meet the physical and nutritional requirements of their customers. Some campgrounds even provide specialized health and fitness classes for the disabled, or have medical support on the property.
Thanks to the ADA, enjoying outdoor life is becoming an important part of travel for the physically challenged. It will take time for more areas to become available, but as trails, beaches, picnic and camping areas, and viewing areas are renovated or new sites are constructed, making these areas accessible to the disabled is taken into consideration. A report developed by the Regulatory Negotiation Committee on Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas “” established by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board), an independent federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities “” has created guidelines for outdoor environments, including trails, overlook areas, picnic areas, and campgrounds.
Improved technology and a greater awareness to the needs of disabled individuals have given those who are physically challenged the same opportunities to enjoy the travel lifestyle as anyone else. Lifts, manual and motorized wheelchairs, accessible trails and fishing platforms, automatic doors into business establishments, ramps for crossing streets, and many other innovations are allowing everyone far greater mobility than ever imagined in the past. But perhaps the greatest asset for disabled individuals who want to travel is the motorhome. It is, indeed, a freedom machine.
Airstream Inc., a division of Thor Industries, C847
(937) 596-6111, ext. 7224
Amadas Coach Corporation, C10031
American Carriage, C7791
American Coach Inc., C2311
Born Free Motorcoach Inc., C1171
Coach House Inc., C7578
Coachworks LLC, C5182
Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International LLC, C9816
Country Coach Inc., C2132
Creative Mobile Interiors, C9705
Custom Coach, a division of Farber Specialty Vehicles, C14
Featherlite Luxury Coaches, C5238
Foretravel Inc., C236
Four Winds International, C7457
Great West Van Conversions Inc., C8977
Hoffman Coach Company, C1859
Innovative Coach Works, C7551
Liberty Coach Inc., C733
Marathon Coach Inc., C2654
Newell Coach Corporation, C47
Newmar Corporation, C4363
Phoenix USA Inc., C9620
Renegade Coaches & Trailers, C7619
Rexhall Industries Inc., C3864
Royale Coach by Monaco Coach Corporation, C1527
Thompson Coach Company, C9260
Winnebago Industries Inc., C93
Xplorer Motor Homes
Wheelchair lifts and controls
Bruno Independent Living Aids
Wheelchair and scooter lifts, turning automotive seating, scooters, power wheelchairs
Vehicle access ramps
Wheelchair lifts and locks, hand controls, raise and lower floors
SFH Products Inc.
Lectra Aid personal lifts
Startracks Custom Lifts
Wheelchair and personal lifts
Vantage Mobility International
Chapters and Clubs
FMCA Achievers International Chapter
Walter Mazzone, president
5156 Pacifica Drive
San Diego, CA 92109-1504
Handicapped Travel Club
257 Rainbow Drive, No. 15767
Livingston, TX 77399
Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH)
347 Fifth Ave., Suite 610
New York, NY 10016
P.O. Box 1796
Wheat Ridge, CO 80034