Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory

Customizing RVs For The Physically Challenged

By Mick Pflug



I will find a way or I will make one.
- Hannibal, ca. 218 BC

Just as Hannibal uttered this phrase referring to his venture across the Alps, disabled individuals searching for a relaxing RV camping adventure know it can be done, but how is the key. The solution to successful RVing in any situation is making your traveling experiences as smooth as possible. Aside from locating handicap-friendly campgrounds and travel service organizations, customizing your RV to accommodate your needs remains essential.

Even individuals without the use of their legs or feet can drive an RV safely and comfortably, just like those who have full bipedal mobility.

The advantage for handicapped individuals who RV is that once the vehicle has been physically altered to suit the driver's needs, you never need to worry about staying in hotels or campground cabins, or worry about vehicle rentals.

Customization for disabled travelers involves more than just relocating the VCR. It involves physically altering the vehicle's structure, moreso than cosmetic changes. "Every handicapped person is impaired differently," said Pete Lewis of Coachcraft Industries in Brownsville, Oregon who's private business customizes vehicles for disabled and non-disabled individuals. "It almost becomes a one-on-one process."

However, the most common vehicle customizations for the wheelchair bound are installing a wheelchair lift, widening the entrance and interior aisles to accommodate the wheelchair's girth and installing hand-control systems.

Widening the door and installing a wheelchair lift are the most popular disability customizations. The rest of the vehicle may be suitable enough so that none of the interior needs to be modified, such as wider aisles.

This type of work may take anywhere from one day to one week to complete. Aside from the lifts, the second most popular modification is converting the foot-powered dashboard driving mechanism to a hand-controlled system.

"This is a driving system that's adapted for people that can't use their legs," Lewis said. "They can work the gas and the brake with their hands instead of with their feet."

This hand system grants paraplegics the freedom to drive across the country without having to always remain a passenger.

All of these modifications can be made in automobiles, trucks and RVs. But when customizing motorhomes and trailers, specifically, widening aisles and modifying the shower/tub are other common changes—which is the whole point to RVing. Not only can handicapped individuals drive to a destination, but their living arrangements can be designed to meet their specific needs.

It's easy to find businesses and manufacturers that will customize your vehicle once you know where to look. But...where do you begin?

The process commences when shopping for an RV, new or used. If buying from a dealership, the store can either make the alterations itself (on an otherwise completely constructed RV) for an extra cost, or it may be able to direct you to local businesses that can provide this service. If buying a used vehicle from a private individual, you will be on your own in finding a conversion business. A local RV dealer may be able to assist, and as always, there's the phone book.

If your RV needs extensive customization, the overall least costly alternative (considering the extensive amount and type of alterations needed) may be to get in on the ground floor—and work with the manufacturer directly, usually through a dealer, and plan your vehicle's design, i.e. width of doors and aisles, specific shower/tub, height of dinette table. You will be able to have your vehicle the way you want and need it by using the manufacturer's recommendations based upon the vehicle's construction. The disadvantages are that overall this may be the most expensive method and may take the longest. However, if a lot of customization needs to be done, this may become the quickest and best-valued option.

However you choose, the business or dealer will work directly with you, ensuring that your RV truly does accommodate your needs.

"We always work with the customer directly because you have to know the specific requirements, dimensions and the size of the customer's chair and their ability or disability," Lewis said.

There is one other option, however, that has only recently surfaced in the past few years—purchasing a pre-constructed handicapped accessible RV. Since the passage of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, businesses and services have become more handicap-friendly, RV manufacturers being no exception.

Play-Mor in Westphalia, Missouri is currently the only RV manufacturer that builds travel trailers for the physically impaired during the vehicle's actual production. This is compared to when working with businesses and dealers, and even with manufacturers in the post-production stage, where all conversions are made after the vehicle has been completely constructed.

"The difference is you're getting the converted unit, factory-built with the lift already installed," said Jim Mandle of Play-Mor. "So we've taken the same price for the trailer—we just added the lift. The modifications are very inexpensive because we're doing it in a production method where we build multiples at one time."

Aside from the wheelchair lift already built into the vehicle in these models, the aisles are wider, the bath and shower are wheelchair accessible and it possesses wheelchair-height wall switches, among other features. The true benefit is that not only is this model ready to go the moment it's purchased, but that it's priced accordingly, and it was built specifically for wheelchair RVers during the actual production of the vehicle.

The advantage is that you get a new RV completely customized for specific wheelchair use, priced within the same range as similar non-handicapped-modified models. Personalization is the key to handicapped RVing. Knowing what you want and how and where to get it done can make for endless comfortable adventures.

Resources for Customizing RVs for the Disabled
The following firms, listed in RV Industry Association's (RVIA) information resources, manufacture or customize RVs for disabled Rvers:

Achievers International (chapter of Family motor Coach Association, FMCA)
9251 E. Lake, Otisville MI 48463; 517/871-4377
Handicapped Travel Club
contact Merle Young, 12555 Lantern Road, Fishers, IN 46038-2884 or e-mail: mry@netdirect.net

Travelin' Talk Network
P. O. Box 3534, Clarksville, TN 37043-3534; 615/552-6670. Send SASE for membership requirements, information about the member directory and a free copy of the quarterly newsletter. The 550-page membership directory lists more than 800 members and types of resources and services for the disabled traveler. The direcory costs $35.

General Information Sources:

Access to the World: A travel Guide for the Handicapped, Louise Weiss.
Henry Holt and Company, Inc., New York, NY 1986
RV - Travel Leisurely Year Round, Rolanda Dumais Masse.
Hippocrene Books, New York, NY, 1991.

Travel for the Disabled, Helen Hecker, RN, Twin Peaks Press, Portland, Oregon, 1985.

Coachcraft Industries Corporation
27251 Hume St., Brownsville OR 97327; 503/466-5131.

DMR Van Conversions, Inc.
204 S. Cedar St., Monticello IA 52310; 319/465-5620.

Firan Motor Coach, Inc.
P.O. Box 482, 58277 S.R. 19 S., Elkhart IN 46515; 219/293-6581.

Foretravel of Texas, Inc.
811 N.W. Stallings Dr., Nacogdoches TX 75964; 409/564-8367.

Honorbuilt Industries, Inc.
1200 W. 10th St., Minneapolis KS 67467; 913/392-2171.

Kustom Car Creations
23350 Harborview Rd., Charlotte Harbor FL 33980; 813/625-9993.

Play-Mor Trailers, Inc.
Hwy. 63 S., Westphalia MO 65085; 314/455-2322.

Quality Vans
1457 N. Arizona Ave., Chandler AZ 85225; 602/899-2088.

Red-E-Kamp, Inc.
811A Space Center, Mira Loma Space Center, Mira Loma CA 91752; 909/685-0151.

Teton Homes
P.O. Box 2349; Mills WY 82644; 307/235-1525.

Turtle Top, Inc.
67895 Industrial Dr., New Paris IN 46553; 219/533-4116.

The Van House
1801 Cushman Dr., Lincoln NE 68512; 402/423-3600.

Waldoch Crafts, Inc.
13821 Lake Dr., Forest Lake MN 55025; 612/464-3215.

Winnebago Industries, Inc.
Commercial Vehicle Department, P.O. Box 152, Forest City IA 50436; 515/582-3535.

Other corporations providing similar services include:

Custom Star Ship
P.O. Box 676, Logansport IN 46947; 317/579-3243.
Mobility, Inc.
4008 Rosepointe Ct., Tampa FL 33614; 813/885-7542 or 800/220-0419.

Mobility Products Corp.
6270 Brookhill Dr., Houston TX 77087; 713/645-2714 or 800/972-LIFT.

Auto/Truck Customization
The following organizations focus on automobile and truck customization, which you may want for your tow vehicle; they also may be able to assist you with altering your RV:

Bruno Independent Living Aids
1780 Executive Dr., P.O. Box 84, Oconomowoc WI 53066; 414/567-4990 or 800/882-8183.
Chrysler Corporation, Automobility Program
P.O. Box 3124, Bloomfield Hills MI 48302-3124; 800/255-9877.

Ford Mobility Motoring Program
P.O. Box 529, Bloomfield Hills MI 48303; 800/952-2248.

GM Mobility Assistance Center
P.O. Box 9011, Detroit MI 48202; 800/323-9935.

Louisiana Tech Center for Rehabilitation Science and Biomedical Engineering
P.O. Box 3185, Ruston LA 71271; 318/257-4562.

You can also check with your local RV dealer or yellow pages for businesses that customize RVs.