Wheelchair Accessible Van Hand Controls Fitting | Motability Journey

Blog thumbnail features me in my powerchair, wearing a mask posing infront of our wheelchair van, a large navy coloured Mercedes Sprinter. Beside it reads "Hand Controls Fitting Appointment with Jim Doran Hand Controls" and also JDHC's business logo.

Disclaimer: This post is not in partnership/sponsored by Motability. It is simply my journey that I hope inspires others towards greater independence.

It’s been a staggering 7 months since my first driving experience where I got the stamp of approval with the Motability scheme to progress to the next stage. No... the sheer joy of this still hasn’t worn off! With everything COVID considered, I’m just thankful we’re even able to take up where we left off back in March with my drive-from WAV journey. Like many organisations, Motability was greatly affected by the UK’s national lockdown during the first wave of the virus and understandably their priorities focused on keeping already established disabled drivers on the road, ensuring they were able to make the most of ‘daily exercise’ allowance by enjoying their local beach, socially-distanced walks in secluded country parks and continuing to attend vital hospital appointments. Despite the great deal of pressure they were under with an estimated 600,000 consumer base, new applications had to paused and applicants already part way through such as myself were significantly delayed, many continued to man the phones from home to make sure disabled people weren’t left in the complete isolation of the four walls of their home and for that I wholeheartedly commend Motability’s dedication to the disability community.

The first contact I received from Motability after lockdown restrictions were lifted regarding my first hand controls fitting with Jim Doran Hand Controls in Coventry (yes, we’re travelling Bolton – Coventry to make this dream a reality but more on that later…) had to be cancelled at the last minute as sadly we resided then in what was deemed as a Tier 3 area, back in September Bolton had the highest rates of infection which is rather scary. So it just wasn’t sensible to embark on this 2 1/2 hr journey and risk either picking up the virus myself being classed as ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ (ugh don’t get me started on the negative language by government officials) or unbeknowingly carrying it from a high risk part of the country and spreading it to another. So our van, which we’ll affectionately name at a later date, sat tight under the watchful and caring eye of the JDHC team.

Mid October came and that’s when I received a call from the lovely Diana attempting to book me in again before further travelling restrictions were put in place e.g the ever worrying possibility of another nationwide lockdown. On this occasion Diana assured me that although Bolton at this time was in Tier 3, all appointments to do with Motability vehicles were now classed as essential travel to offset the negative implications of COVID on the disability community supported by the scheme. Don’t get me wrong, I was still apprehensive about travelling all that way in the current climate… afterall by this point I hadn’t ventured out on an actual proper outing that wasn’t the park with the littles in 8 MONTHS as a shielder. With that said, our family had a small window of opportunity to take advantage to progress in the fitting of the Space Drive technology in particular that Diana feared if we missed was very likely JDHC wouldn’t be able to accommodate another fitting until next year. And with that, like much of life you must take risks to better it… so we did…

Travelling to Coventry in a Pandemic

Just as they did when we needed to go to Haydock to test drive the Merecedes Sprinter, Motability generously funded and arranged a suitable accessible taxi to Coventry and back. Ironically it was the same driver as the first time.

Travelling sideways in a black cab for that length of time was draining I must admit and once there we had a scary experience backing my powerchair down the ramp of the taxi. Like many drivers, he wasn’t carrying a ramp extension which made the ramp very steep and the driver, though a very nice gentleman, didn’t recognise that in order to make the ramp less steep he needed to park against a kerb and fold it down. I hate backing down ramps at a tilt where I cannot see what I’m doing what so ever, relying solely on the driver to guide me. On this occasion, I came off the side of the ramp with a thud which jarred my back and gave me a fright. Thankfully my powerchair didn’t tip, but coming off the side of the ramp could of been prevented if the driver would of simply carried a ramp extension.

This was a reminder and one of the many reasons why it’s so important for our family to have our own vehicle that met the needs of our whole family.

The Grand Reveal

Upon arrival at Jim Doran, Diana popped out to greet us and take our temperatures which made made the visit during COVID feel much more controlled, which we appreciated. Once we got the all clear she took us around to the garage door, pressed a button to let it open and there it was…

Fi sat in her powered wheelchair posing by her navy Merecedes Sprinter wheelchair accessible van. Fi is wearing her long brown hair down, fringe swept to the side and a blue mask.

Our navy blue Merecedes Sprinter, sat there in all her glory, all sparkly and new, I couldn’t quite believe it was ours… Diana gave us a minute to get acquainted with the van which we appreciated. We went all around, admiring her and Mark peaked inside, opened the doors and had a nosey. Even he kept asking if I was sure this was ours. It just seemed so surreal that we were finally meeting the van that would change our lives forever. How did we get this lucky? My heart just oozes gratitude for this life-enhancing opportunity thanks to the Motability Scheme.

A lovely gentleman named Rob interduced himself and immediately gave me the key fob to control the van’s tail lift as it was time to get aboard to take some measurements in the driving position! Watching the back doors swing open and the tail lift descend to the ground under the touch of my finger tip was like watching the Dr Who tardis land, I was absolutely fascinated! Once inside, Rob instructed me to get parked up in the driving position. He’d already removed the driving seat ahead of the appointment and after some strategic aligning of my powerchair at the wheel, Rob got to work figuring out how the locking system was going to work with my Quickie Sedeo 700R.

The wheelchair locking system by Paravan is a metal docking station on the floor of the van that the wheelchair user specifically drives and aligns over, a metal ‘pin’ that is connected beneath the drivers own wheelchair slides into place on the docking station as the user aligns themselves which then securely fastens them to the floor of the vehicle. Incredible right?! We had some teething issues as Rob noted my wheelchair’s seat is fixed further forward above its chassis which meant Jim Doran needed to raise the floor at a slope so my front wheels would be on a hill (for lack of better words), then it would align properly with the docking station and pin. To figure out how much the floor of the vehicle needed to be at an incline, Rob had me drive on planks of wood at varying heights to get the angle just right and noted down his measurements.

Collage of photos of Fi's Merecedes Sprinter. First image is of Fi rising up on the tail lift of the van into the vehicle, second image is of Fi parked in her powerchair in the driving position and the third is of the back seats folded down in the back.

Next was to measure for the Space Drive controls, this would be how I would actually drive our van. Incase you missed my last Motability journey blog, Space Drive technology consists of two joysticks that act as your steering wheel and accelerator/break. These joysticks are bespoke and can be placed at quite literally any angle around the drivers wheelchair to suit their needs. E.g if the individual had a very limited reach they could angle them as close to their body as possible or either side of their arm rest if the person prefered. Space Drive can also be tailored to the users strength, such as making the joysticks more sensitive for those like myself with dexterity and arm weakness or less sensitive for example somebody with Cerebral Palsy who may have tremors/spasms or if their disability makes them naturally more heavy handed. Indicators, windshield wipers and such can be controlled either by a series of buttons on the joystick base or as a single button on the tip of the joystick you operate with your thumb and spin through in a bleeper style system. My original assessor Kevin recommended the later for me to prevent driving fatigue and Rob agreed! One thing that has changed from my original driving assessment is that Rob felt the tripod hand grip for the accessorator/break was no longer needed to brace my arm as wheelchair services had since provided me with a chest strap, promoting greater core stability in my wheelchair in general and now also when driving. Rob measured and put x’s on where the Space Drive controls needed to be erected in the van to meet my needs and reach limitations.

Lastly was the extra mirrors. If you’ve been following my driving journey you may remember there was a particular concern from day one over my eye movement disorder Chronic progressive external ophthalmoplegia (CPEO), which is characterized by slowly progressive inability to move the eyes and eyebrows, a symptom of my rare form of Muscular Dystrophy. When I first applied with Motability for a drive-from WAV, I braced myself to be turned down due to my inability to move my eyes fully to the left, right and upwards. When my consultant gave me the all clear to drive with the right adaptations to compensate for this, I was over the moon!

CPEO is extremely rare, not a lot of consultants in the Neuromuscular field have heard of it nevermind a driving hand controls specialist. This meant I spent some time explaining to Rob what I could and couldn’t see. This was a little nerve wracking as he’d ask me if I could see e.g the red bin all the way to the left and the ‘wash your hands’ sign all the way to the right in the garage. As the driving position is on the right, I could make out the hand washing sign, but I could not see the red bin to the left whatsoever. Rob was concerned if I was at a T junction, that I wouldn’t be able to see enough to safely navigate it. He exited the vehicle to go rummage in the garage for some additional mirrors and when he returned, holding one in place with his free-hand on the dashboard, just like magic… I could then see the red bin! I cannot begin to explain how relieved I was at this point, having to give up on the journey after getting this far would of been devastating… Just to be on the safe side, Rob noted down I needed two additional mirrors on the dashboard to see clearly which was sensible.

Before we packed up our lunch bag and grabbed our coats, Rob informed us we’d likely need to return to the garage 2-3 more times to get everything just right. For now he was placing the order for the Space Drive technology from Germany, which will take several weeks or more to come in what with COVID on top of international delivery times and he gave us a guess-timate van delivery time of mid-January 2021 all things going well!

We left Jim Doran feeling like everything was in hand and incredibly satisfied with their customer service. All their staff were so polite and knew their stuff, plus they took COVID very seriously. Ever member of staff was wearing a mask and kept their distance as much as possible and everybody was temperature checked upon arrival. We couldn’t of asked for a better experience at this point and would wholeheartedly recommend their services to anybody embarking on a similar journey to greater independence!

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning the goings on at JDHC in Coventry and following our journey so far! Be sure to subscribe to find out what’s next in the process and what’s on our ‘must-visit’ list when we’re finally on freedom road.

About Me Graphic, Features circular photo of Fi, a fair skinned lady with long straight brown hair and glasses smiling wearing light make-up. Reads; "Hello, I'm Fi. Mummy of 2 littles from Greater Manchester, living with a rare life-limiting form of Muscular Dystrophy. Aspiring to provide information and support for others parenting with a disability, while challenging stigma and common misconceptions while broadening minds of society on disabled parents. Believer of impossibilities and dedicated campaigner of change for the rights of disabled people in the UK.

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