Having a Child with Down Syndrome, Part XVII: Vehicles

Copyright © 2011, Stephen Hawley, all rights reserved.

For the past 16 years, I have driven pickup trucks.  It meshed well with my hobbies and general lifestyle.  Both trucks I’ve owned were extended cab models that were small enough to get decent mileage, but big enough to haul a week’s groceries in the cab as well as sheets of plywood or drywall in the bed.

For the past year, it has been increasingly challenging to haul the kids.  There is room in the back for child seats, but that space is starting to get a little tight, and of course, it is neither ethical nor safe to put them in the bed!  It’s more of a challenge with Alice.  She can’t climb up into the truck on her own and even with a step, she has a great deal of difficulty getting into the back: her feet get caught on the  front seats.  It’s also getting harder for me to left a wiggling 50 pound girl in and out.  Never mind that on the way out it’s a coin flip if her shoes or orthotics will get caught.

Since last summer, I’d been looking at vehicles that might replace my truck.  And for the first time, E and I are making a decision to buy a vehicle based on accessibility.  This is a good thing.  I thought I would document the process we followed and leave it on the web for posterity.

Alice is in a funny category of disabled.  She can get around on her own, but she has a number of limitations due to her stroke in tandem with low muscle tone consistent with Down syndrome.  This means that she’s not in a wheel chair so we don’t (and shouldn’t) have a life.  Yet most vehicles are not accessible to her and lifting her up is not a long term solution.  I believe it is best that has as much independence as possible and getting herself in and out of a car is going to be part of that.

Step 1: get a list of candidate vehicles.  To do this, look at what a few reputable manufacturers have in stock.  Then read reviews on them.  I found that Edmunds reviews often contained a list of vehicles that are considered competitive.  Add these to your list too.

Step 2: make a spread sheet about the cars.  You should have broad categories that define what you want (safety, economy, accessibility, total cost, etc.).  Add to those categories subcategories that make sense or are important to you.  Consider rating these from 0-10, where 10 is best and 0 is worst (trust me, this makes it way easier).  Then for each broad category, make a cell that sums them up and divides that by the number of subcategories (if you’re a rockstar, make each subcategory have a weight so that all the weights add up to 10, then take each subcategory score and multiply it by the weight and the sum of all those will be the final score).  Finally, have a cell that is a sum of the scores of each broad category, and again you can weight these.

Step 3: collect as much data as you can without going to a dealer.  For example, you can get safety rating from the NHTSA.  You can get extensive recall information from LemonAuto.  Edumunds can give you TCO (Total Cost of Owernship), which is a better idea of what a vehicle will cost over its entire life.

Step 4: test drive the car, if possible without your child(ren).  It will make your life a lot easier.  Bring a tape measure with you.  I took measurements from the ground to the bottom of the doorway.  I measured the depth of the step down into the car (if any).  I measured the distance from the back seat to the front seat when the front seats were adjusted for E and I.  I tried to get a sense of how the door would help or hinder.  Were there any hand holds or a place to mount them if they weren’t.  Did the car come with running boards and if so were there any on the lot that had them?  If the car didn’t come with running boards, were there after market running boards for that year/model and how bad are they (my research indicated that most models in the northeast were given a lifespan of about 3-5 years.  I found one brand, Romik, that comes with a 10 year warrantee.

Step 5: when you have it narrowed down to two or three vehicles, take your child with you.  When Alice and I went, I brought along a step stool that she uses in the bathroom to get to the sink.  I brought her into the dealership and set up the step stool next to the car and put her booster seat into the car and asked her to climb in.  “Need help,” she said.  “No, I think you can get in on your own.”  And she did.  I had her climb out.  No problem.  I put the step stool in the foot well and asked her to put take it out, set it up and climb in on her own.  She did.  Then I tried her on the other side.  She was liking this game.  Terrific.

Step 6: Negotiate.  I’ll tell you my basic technique, since I hate negotiating.  Since I got along well with the salesperson at the dealership, I told him that I was going to collect quotes and give him the chance to meet or beat.  I also chose the end of the month and the end of the quarter for this.  Then I sent email to every dealership within 200 miles requesting a quote.  I requested the “out the door” price and let them know that it was a competitive bid and I would buy the lowest.  I also requested that all quotes be sent to me via fax.  Why?  Because a quote in writing is a contract.  I am not a lawyer, but I am a programmer and I know that email is pretty damn easy to forge/deny.  Handwriting on a quote, less so.  Also, requesting via fax and requesting an “out the door” price set a bar for the salepersons.  You are testing their ability to follow directions and to attend to details.  I had to call every single dealership to follow up on the email and get action, which I found astounding.  Beyond that, I gave every dealer exactly one chance to correct mistakes (quote in email, not including taxes, DOC fees, etc.) and then decided that if the salesperson couldn’t follow instructing, I didn’t want to cut a deal.  I brought the quote to the original dealership and they met it.  By the way, make it clear that if they try to charge you one cent more than an agreed upon amount, you will walk out since you have a written quote for that same amount.

What I wished I had known a priori: many car manufacturers have something called a mobility program.  If you or your passenger has accessibility issues, the manufacturer may offer a rebate for modifications that need to be made to the car to aid accessibility.  I won’t give you a list since my searching showed that it changes from year to year.  Check the manufacturers web site.  Do a broad search on the internet for “carcompany mobility” and see what comes up.  I had no clue that any manufacturer offered this until a sales manager at a Hyundai dealership pointed it out.  Then I searched for who offered what.  Be careful to read the fine print before you depend on it.  For example, so dealerships limit it to things that are installed by third parties and may not cover “accessory” items (like a trailer hitch, if you are going to stow a wheelchair on it; or running boards)!  You will also undoubtedly be required to demonstrate proof of need.  Be sure to get a prescription or a note from a doctor or physical therapist (or whatever the manufacturer requires).  Also keep in mind that reimbursement may be time limited – be ready to act.  If you’re working with a dealership that doesn’t offer a mobility program, by all means use it as a bargaining chip (“Hyundai will give me up to $1000 back for …, why should I pay you for something that’s free from them?”) and see how quickly they change their mind.  Remember, in the 2011 economic climate, dealerships want you as a return customer (for maintenance too) and as an advertiser for them.  If they won’t play nicely, walk out or threaten to do so.