Car buying tips for the parents of children with special needs.
As many families know, having a child with a disability impacts the entire family. One of the challenges it can present is simply getting from point A to point B. When a child requires bulky medical supplies, not all vehicles will meet their family’s needs.
Some children need wheelchair vans that are primarily sold by specialized dealers, but many others are able to ride in standard vehicles with little to no modifications. Choosing the right car for their needs can be a challenge, and it’s easy to make a costly mistake. Keep these six tips in mind while you shop for your family’s next vehicle.
1. Consider your medical supply needs
Many children with disabilities use medical supplies that need to be plugged in. One simple way to ensure these needs are met while on the road is by purchasing a car with plenty of electrical outlets. Additional outlets can be important for children who rely on ventilators, IV pumps, feeding tubes, or other types of assistive devices that need to be plugged in. However, they can also be useful for kids who need food or medications to be kept cold while traveling.
Extra cup holders and spaces for snacks are helpful for all families, but they can be a lifesaver for families whose children often face severe consequences if they skip meals. Secure tie downs, particularly in the back of vans, are also critical for families whose children rely on oxygen tanks or other heavy medical equipment. Adequate storage space in the car is especially important for families of children with special needs, who often have to create their own systems for their children’s medical supplies.
2. Bring your medical equipment shopping
There is nothing worse than buying your dream car only to get it home and discover it doesn’t meet your needs. For families whose children rely on cumbersome medical equipment, it is even more critical to know exactly what you need before you sign on the dotted line.
One mother told me that when they got their new car home and installed their daughter’s special needs car seat, it extended way too far out and made their daughter very uncomfortable. Another family had a similar problem with a medical car seat that was so tall that there wasn’t enough headroom for their child in the backseat. Special needs strollers are also bulkier and more cumbersome than standard strollers, and require more trunk space than you might expect.
If you can swing it, it’s always best to bring all of your child’s medical equipment along car shopping so you can see how well it fits. If you’re not able to do that, measure all of your child’s medical supplies (twice!) and calculate your required cargo space to avoid any unpleasant surprises down the line.
3. Research your child’s needs
It’s easy to find the most expensive solution to transporting a child with a disability, but getting creative can save you money. If your child relies on a power wheelchair, you might assume that your child needs a wheelchair van for transportation. However, there are other solutions that are much less expensive, including wheelchair lifts that are installed in the trunk of a vehicle, trailer platforms that attach to a tow hitch in the back, or even simple metal ramps that fold up and can be stored in the trunk.
While these solutions are less expensive, they have very specific requirements. Trailer platforms, for instance, require a vehicle with a tow hitch. Lifts can be installed in many vehicles, but they all have very specific (and different) height requirements. Metal ramps are large, even when folded, and they will only work if your child’s power wheelchair easily folds (and there is enough space in the trunk for a large, folded power wheelchair). If you are interested in any of these solutions, do your research first and go to the dealer with your requirements in hand.
4. Spring for the options that will make your life easier
Once upon a time, children survived car rides with only a fuzzy AM radio station to listen to, but times have changed and it’s important to choose your battles. Options like DVD entertainment systems and cars that allow you to easily connect video game systems can be a lifesaver for families who spend a lot of time in the car traveling to medical appointments. Vans with re-arrangeable configurations and stowable tables are also a great choice for kids who may need to frequently eat their meals on to the go in between doctor’s visits.
5. Consider your comfort
When your child has a disability, it can be easy to lose sight of your own needs. When you are transporting your child, you may need to lift them in and out of the vehicle, get their wheelchair in and out of the car, and secure a variety of pumps and equipment. Just like you consider your child’s needs, it’s important to think about your own needs, too.
If you have to lift your child, make sure that the cars you’re considering are at the most comfortable height for you to do so. Practice getting them in and out before making a final decision. Many small problems with vehicles only arise when you use them, so it’s important to give any vehicle you’re seriously considering purchasing a trial run that includes tending to your child’s needs before buying. If one car meets your child’s needs but strains your back, mark it off your list. Your new car needs to meet your entire family’s needs.
6. Focus on reliability
No one enjoys car repairs, but families caring for children with special needs are often already strapped financially. Having your perfectly-selected vehicle in and out of the shop can leave you in the lurch and struggling to find transportation to meet your child’s needs.
Reading car reviews is a great way to find a vehicle that will keep you on the road instead of in the repair shop. Likewise, buying an extended warranty can give you peace of mind (and financial security) if something does end up going wrong with your vehicle somewhere along the way.
7. Buy the car your family will need in 5 years, not today
Unless you plan to only drive your car for the next year, you need to take into consideration how your child’s health may progress during the lifetime of your car. Your child will also keep growing, so it’s important to ensure that the medical supplies they will need as they get larger can be accommodated by your new car.
Any family whose child currently uses a manual wheelchair should consider whether they may need a power wheelchair in the future. Because power wheelchairs present many transportation challenges, it is important to buy a vehicle that can easily accommodate a power wheelchair in the future.
One woman told me she purchased a vehicle that stopped meetings her family’s needs in only a few years. The inability to easily transport her family was overwhelming and prevented them from doing all of the things they would’ve liked to do. Had they measured the cars they were considering to ensure they could one day accommodate a wheelchair lift, they would have experienced much less stress and fewer problems down the line.