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Vehicles for Veterans

Wed, 01 Aug 2012

Why these special stories on mobility? According the U.S. Census, nearly 10 million people age 18 to 64 have an ambulatory difficulty that could affect their ability to drive. So we put modified Toyota vans and the factory-built wheelchair-accessible MV-1 to the test, and explore the needs of and programs available for veterans. Come along for the drive.

After more than a decade of war, enough young Americans in uniform have been combat casualties that it is not only older veterans who are seeking vehicles and vehicle modifications to aid mobility. While the number of troops who have amputations, paralysis and other permanent disabilities is small by comparison with those from “big” wars, media attention has ensured that today's disabled veterans are not forgotten, as so many of their comrades from the Vietnam War were.

Today's veterans also have advantages their predecessors did not, both in the immediate care they receive after an injury on the job and in the technologies to aid them in using automobility. They encounter those technologies first in their rehab programs, where physical and occupational therapists determine what assistance they'll need to drive. Driving simulators help ease the transition to assisted-mobility machines.

Veterans Affairs driving rehab specialists work with mobility consultants at companies such as MobilityWorks in Santa Clara, Calif., to help disabled vets find the right machines for their requirements. Don Salman of MobilityWorks, who is a veteran, works closely with the VA so that when a disabled veteran calls on him, he knows which technologies the person will need and how much the VA will pay to help the veteran.

Salman noted, “If the VA puts you in a wheelchair or scooter, the VA is required to help find you a means of transporting it.” The VA has thus become a partner with private industry in developing mobility-aiding technologies to help disabled vets.

Martine Kempf, CEO of Kempf USA, made use of the nearby VA facility when she was developing the Kempf digital handcontrol system. The company's Web site, has video segments of veterans driving and commenting on the equipment.

Other major manufacturers of modified vehicles and equipment also serve disabled veterans, among them BraunAbility in Indiana, Vehicle Mobility Inc. in Arizona and Rollx in Minnesota. Retail outlets such as MobilityWorks connect the VA, disabled vets and the equipment that can aid veterans with mobility.

Chris Henson, a veterans health administration program specialist, said in the Vanguard VA employee magazine, “For some 100 percent [of] service-connected veterans, [the] VA will purchase and install the technology and offer up to $11,000 for a new vehicle. VA prefers to install the equipment on new vehicles but will retrofit any vehicle less than three years old and with less than 35,000 miles. The cost for the materials and labor can be as high as $50,000.”

Because of the high price of much of the technology, this financial help might not be enough, Salman said. Even so, a cursory review of the help available to disabled veterans shows that today's vets, like all people living with disabilities, have options never before available. Given what is asked of military men and women, such options are only fitting.

Steven L. Thompson, a mobility columnist for Autoweek and, also is an Air Force veteran.

By Steven L. Thompson