Life with MS

Go Where You Want To Go: A Consumer's Guide to Conversion Vans

By Teresa Campbell
In the more than forty years that I have had MS, I have purchased multiple mobility devices, including a cane, walker, manual wheelchair, and three-wheeled scooter. When visiting San Francisco, I often used public transportation and my scooter. Other times, a friend would push me in my manual wheelchair. More recently, I was planning a trip to Yosemite National Park. I assumed I would take my manual wheelchair and my friend, Sue, would push me. Unfortunately, Sue had developed tendonitis and pushing my chair was painful. It was time to find another way to transport my scooter so I could go where I wanted to go independently.
My knowledge of accessible vans was limited to my experiences with San Francisco’s Ramp Taxi Service, which is part of the city’s Paratransit Program. Their wheelchair accessible minivan has a lowered floor and rear entry. It’s provided by Liberty Motor Company, Inc., which provides vehicles to more than 60 percent of North American taxicab and paratransit companies, and is the only company that offers a lifetime conversion warranty. (This means that Liberty will repair, or have repaired, any aspect of the conversion that proves to be defective in material or workmanship for as long as the buyer owns the vehicle – at no cost.)          
When the driver backed up to my door, entering the van was easy. I relaxed as he secured my scooter, pulled up the manual lift, and closed the rear door. Besides the driver, the van could carry up to five passengers. If I purchased my own van, I wouldn’t be able to operate a manual door or ramp independently. I also decided that rear entry, which required space for the driver to open the door and drive the scooter out, was less convenient than side entry.
Sizing up accessible vans
I saw pictures of full-size accessible vans in disability magazines, but wasn’t sure I needed one. The full-sized van provides more options in terms of lifts and hand controls, cheaper conversion, and more room inside the van. But it’s more difficult to park and consumes more gas than the minivan. I looked at the Ford E-150 Club Wagon and the Ford E-250 before deciding that a minivan would be sufficient for me.       
When I first visited an accessible van dealership, each van seemed too large and required advance ordering. I wondered if these vans would even fit in my garage or if I would have one in time for my trip. The price tag wasn’t exactly comforting, either. I had read that finding a gently-used wheelchair accessible van, with 15,000 to 20,000 miles or so, could really lower the price. My search revealed two such vans – more than 100 miles away and in different parts of the state! I was sad about giving up the car, too. Or, more precisely, the freedom that went with it. An accessible van wasn’t a fun purchase. It meant I had more disability. I was tired and feeling overwhelmed, but I pushed on.
At the next dealer, I saw a new white Grand Caravan Sport with a Vantage Mobility International Northstar conversion. This translated into a 10-inch lowered floor, lots of interior headroom, power ramp, power doors, and plenty of floor space. I could enter it easily with my scooter. This one was a special display van, so I couldn’t take it for a test drive.
I went to the Dodge company near my house and discussed my concerns about the minivan fitting in my garage. The salesman took me for a ride in a Grand Caravan Sport, much like I'd seen in the showroom. The salesman drove the van into my garage. It fit, with only a few inches to spare on either side. It would be easy to break off one of the side mirrors. I'd obviously have to practice my parking skills.
I found a buyer for my car and decided to buy the white Grand Caravan Sport. I needed something right away – I’d waited a year for this trip to Yosemite.
A look at the price tag
The price of the Grand Caravan Sport was $24,254, after $5,000 in manufacturer’s rebates. The cost of the conversion was $17,255 – for a grand total of $41,509. My doctor gave me a prescription for the accessible van so I was exempt from paying sales tax on the conversion. In most states wheelchair accessible conversion costs are exempt from sales tax. You pay tax only on the base vehicle, or “chassis.” (This tax break holds true for most adaptive equipment.)
Most van conversions, lifts, hand controls, tie downs and other adaptive equipment are eligible for reimbursement under various mobility programs offered by GM, Saturn, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Lexus, VW, etc. These programs provide cash payments to disabled drivers for the installation of adaptive equipment in any new vehicle, whether it is purchased outright or leased. Contact your local dealer and ask for their access or mobility program’s toll-free number for drivers with disabilities.
If you are currently employed and an accessible van will allow you to continue working, assistance may be available througyour employer or you local Vocational Rehabilitation Office. I had retired from my professorship at San Francisco State and launched my second career as a writer. However, a van wasn’t necessary for my writing, so this wasn’t an option for me.
What I learned
For the most part, I am happy with my van. It allows me to go where I want to go – but next time, I’d do a few things differently.
• Visit This site has won awards for automotive journalism and lists market value pricing, unbiased car reviews, ratings, and expert advice to help consumers get a fair deal. (Then, I would have known that the two most recommended minivans are the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna.)
• Read Consumer Reports. Before buying my 2003 minivan, I had read in Consumer Reports that the transmission and power train were at risk for problems. Because my trip was fast approaching and I was tired, I bought it anyway. Thankfully, I purchased the extended warranty because at 14,000 miles, my transmission had to be replaced.
• Shop around. The Abilities Expo is a great way to see a variety of conversion vans in one location. You can spend hours on the exhibit floor testing and comparing products and services from different companies. Check their website,, and see when they’ll be in your area.
• Try renting a conversion van. It’s a great way to determine your likes and dislikes. If you aren’t thrilled with it, rent another one.
Teresa Campbell was diagnosed with MS in 1966. She taught at San Francisco State University for 23 years and is now professor emeritus. An avid world-traveler, she is the author of  Life is an Adventure (1st Books, 2002) as well as countless articles and short stories.
Adaptive Driving Alliance
Call 623-434-0722 or visit
This is a nationwide group of vehicle modification dealers who provide van conversions, hand controls, wheelchair lifts, scooter lifts, tie downs, and other adaptive equipment to empower drivers with disabilities.
The National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association
Call 800-833-0427 or visit
This nonprofit trade association of mobility equipment dealers, driver rehabilitation specialists and other professionals has more than 600 members who work together to improve transportation options for people with disabilities.
Department of Veterans Affairs
Call 800-827-1000 or visit
Auto Adaptive Program
This program enables disabled veterans to operate a motor vehicle.
(Last reviewed 7/2009)