What It's Like...

Choosing the Right Car

Americans have long had love affairs with cars and what they embody: open roads, new adventures, freedom.

Purchasing a car combines those dreams with more practical considerations: mpg, safety ratings, and of course, price tags. For wheelchair users, that list can be even longer: How easy will it be to transfer from chair to car? Where will the chair be stored? Does the design of the car lend itself to hand-control adaptations?

Josh Anderson is VP of product & brand management at TiLite, manufacturer of custom-built titanium and aluminum ultralightweight wheelchairs for adults, teens and kids. Josh has been around cars his whole life: His father worked in the automotive industry, and today, Josh is a huge Formula-1 racing fan. Josh also uses an ultralight wheelchair, or as he refers to it, a "wheeled prosthetic" built to his unique specifications.

The Mobility Project asked Josh what qualities he looks for in his everyday car, what advice he has for wheelchair users who are shopping around... and what his dream car would be!

The Mobility Project: What you look for in a car and why?

Josh Anderson: First, I look for what style of vehicle do I want? I have always preferred sports cars. I don't drive that much; I live fairly close to my office. I rarely drive any great distance for work, so the limited amount that I do drive, I enjoy the feel and performance of a sports car.

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Josh's new car: a BMW 4 Series

But a sports car typically doesn't have a back seat or even any space behind the front seats, and this is a problem for me for two reasons.

One, I am fanatical about taking care of my chair and my car. (And yes, in that order.) So if the process of putting my chair inside a car would come with a high risk of routinely scratching either, then that is the wrong car for me.

Two, with a two-seater sports car, typically the seats do not recline far enough for me to pass the chair between me and the steering wheel. It also makes it harder to control my balance if I cannot recline the seat. I have found that what works best for me are sports coupes. They offer the room I need and the performance I like.

TMP: What kinds of modifications have you done to your car and why?

JA: The modifications I do to my car are the additions of left-handed hand controls and a "U" cuff spinner on the steering wheel.

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Here are the temporary hand controls, installed while the permanent hand controls were being fabricated according to Josh's specific measurements

Styling is equally as important to me as form and function, so I like to blend my modifications into the car as much as possible. For that reason I prefer a black interior because it is easy to get all-black hand controls. And what doesn't come in black, it's amazing what a bottle of black nail polish can do.

Other than that, I put a black towel on the front passenger seat to keep any water or dirt off the seat from my chair. I also use one on the back seat, for my wheels. (One of the guys I work with, Doug Garven -- who is also a car guy -- bought a fitted seat cover for his new car, and that looks and works much better than a towel.)

That's all I do to my car, but I do take advantage of the many conveniences offered by the manufacturer that make it easier to get in and out. The biggest one is power seats, with multiple memory positions. That way I can set up one position for driving and another for getting in and out -- which makes it much faster to get in out when you can be doing other things and not having to manually move the seat back or hold the power buttons. Another option I really like is keyless entry and keyless start/stop. It is much faster to get in and out of the car and the trunk if all you have to do is touch the handle to unlock it.

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And here are the permanent hand controls. Gentleman, start your engine!

Same holds true for starting and stopping the car if you don't have to fumble to grab your key then fumble to put it in the ignition -- the process of getting in and out is just much smoother and faster.

TMP: What you've learned during your car-buying processes?

JA: If this is your first car-buying experience, the absolute best thing you can do is try different cars that you like. There is no way to know what's going to work best for you without trying it first.

I found that you can probably get in and out of a lot of cars, but trying a few will let you know which one is easier. Not just the roominess of the cab, but placement of the button(s) you need to work. I tried one car that had the power seat and memory button on the center console, and I kept bumping into it, causing the seat to move when I was loading the chair into the passenger front seat.

My chair always travels in the front seat unless someone is riding with me, and then it goes in the trunk. It is always a good idea to make sure your chair fits in the trunk or at the very least that you know it won't before you buy the car.

The other thing to ask about is if that manufacturer has an adaptive driving program. Most auto manufacturers have them, and they are there to help you with the costs of purchasing and installing hand controls. The amount that they reimburse varies, so it's good to ask up front.

TMP: What cars have you owned, what are your favorites, and what is your dream car?

JA: I am a big fan of BMW. I love the look and performance. I have had a few different BMW models and never had any problems with the cars. Their service has always been outstanding, regardless of dealership. Which is important because installing hand controls is not the norm and can either be a smooth process or a huge headache.

My dream car would be a Bugatti Veyron Vitesse. But I don't anticipate one of those in my driveway... ever!

Editor's Note

WIL Choosing CarJosh Anderson is VP of product & brand management at TiLite in Pasco, Wash. He's not only a VP at TiLite, he's a consumer of their custom made chairs. At 6'9", TiFit customization is key for Josh and his mobility: Although he looks like he functions as a para, his skills hide the fact that he is a C5-6 quad. Josh's power of positive thinking turns the everyday impossible into a possibility. He believes not only do you need to have a "can-do" attitude, but you need to give yourself permission to sometimes "do it differently"!

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.