Competitive Drive?

Tomorrow marks the end of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA)‘s fifth annual Local Heroes Contest. Thank goodness! Why do I hate it? Let me count the ways…

  1. The name. We can get the obvious out of the way first. Local “heroes”? Clearly, the Association is referring to people with disabilities as heroes. It’s inspiration porn at its worst. The people, for the most part, entering the contest are regular, every day individuals that simply need some assistance with transportation needs. Being disabled does not equate to heroism.
  2. The design. You might say, “Well, Emily, some disabled people are heroes. What about the disabled vet who had his legs blown off in Afghanistan? What about the gal who tirelessly fought to expand independent living services in her county? Isn’t it great that the Association wants to get these people more mobile?” If only that were true… Instead, anyone can enter the contest. And the public at large votes for the top contenders. That’s right, my friend: the Association is merely sponsoring a popularity contest with the objective of getting its name out there.
  3. The private consequences. A new van generally costs around $60,000, depending upon the modifications required by each user. This makes it incredibly difficult for many people with disabilities to secure personal transport.  I entered the contest the first year, not realizing what a disgrace it is. I quit promoting myself after I realized at the vast majority of my friends with physical disabilities also entered the contest. Social media feeds began to get nasty, with friends arguing one was more deserving another. Not something I wanted to be a part of.
  4. The public consequences. Absolutely nothing. Can the Association demonstrate how the contest has benefited people with disabilities in an overarching manner? I think not. More groups have not been created to lower the cost of accessible vehicles. Individuals are still struggling to make it to health appointments and work on a daily basis. The contest has done nothing other than result in vehicles for a few people, whose contributions are generally unremarkable.

I would encourage NMEDA members to quit supporting such a ridiculous endeavor. Time and money could better be spent creating sustainable programs that would support more individuals in accessing their own accessible vehicles. Why not start a low-interest car loan program? Why not offer smaller grants to people that are genuinely engaged in heroic pursuits that benefit the disability community? It’s high time the existing contest hit the road.

Wheels on Wheels

When you ask people with disabilities about their number one barrier, transportation is a frequent reply. (More than 500,000 people report never leaving their homes due to lack of transportation. For more on this, and other alarming statistics, look here.) In addition to being an American symbol of freedom, personal vehicles are often necessary to maintain employment, social contact, and good health. Public transportation is not available in rural areas, and even city paratransit services often leave those with disabilities waiting for hours. Although urban millennials have been pushing for more universal public transit, legislatures like my own Indiana General Assembly are stuck in old transportation paradigms.

I am fortunate enough to use an accessible vehicle purchased by my parents, a 1999 Chevy Savana, modified by a previous owner. (See here for a lively visual and rap song.) However, we learned in April 2015 that the van would no longer be insured as of April 2016. Apparently it was too old. Thus began the process of trying to get a new adaptive vehicle.

Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) programs exist in every state, a jointly funded state and federal program to help people with disabilities achieve and maintain employment. Where a vehicle is necessary for job success (e.g., one needs a vehicle to drive to work), VR will pay for the cost of vehicle modifications. Unfortunately, VR only purchases the modifications – that is, the lift or ramp, the wheelchair tiedowns, etc. – and the client is responsible for providing the vehicle. Individual VR programs set rules regarding the type of vehicle that they will modify, frequently requiring new or gently-used ones in order to ensure that the modifications will be used for years to come. Effectively, this means that people, who sometimes are not even employed yet, are on the hook to purchase a $30,000 van. Yet, because modifications run upwards of $20,000, going through VR is worth it.

I contacted my local VR office in May 2015 and expressed my desire having my case reopened. The local supervisor stated that a new case would have to be opened, given the expensive nature of my request. Okay… I was then informed that I could get in for an appointment in September, a clear violation of VR regulations. Good thing I’m a lawyer, huh? After some self-advocacy on my part, we finally got the paperwork started.


Today, I finally got my van I named her Clover, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, and because I know how lucky I am to have her. I’m grateful for the financial resources to purchase the Dodge Grand Caravan, and for the taxpayer-funded $22,000 in modifications.

I still wonder what happens to people who are looking for jobs and can’t yet afford the price of a modification-ready vehicle. To my knowledge, no private funding sources currently exist. Some public funding is available to veterans, but not the average cripple. Do you have any creative solutions for the funding of accessible vehicle?