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Modified SUV ups options for drivers with disabilities

Robert Duffer
Chicago Tribune

Lance Cpl. Mike Delancey is a cyclist, weightlifter, fisherman, activist and founder of the Wounded Warriors Abilities Ranch. Like most 30-year-olds without kids, Delancey didn’t want a minivan.

“A lot of guys don’t want that soccer mom feel,” said Delancey, of Pinellas Park, Florida.

Up until recently, Delancey and other wounded veterans didn’t have many options. The BraunAbility MXV — given to Delancey on Sept. 1 as he celebrated his Alive Day (a day to observe the anniversary of having survived a near-death injury) — is the first-ever wheelchair-accessible sport utility vehicle.

The modified Ford Explorer has a nerf step, tow hitch and a charcoal digital camo wrap.

“I’m lucky I got the first one off the line; it has all the bells and whistles,” Delancey said. “It looks mean from the outside. Even if you weren’t paraplegic, a lot of the guys are drooling over it.”

Delancey was able to show off the latest in wheelchair-accessible mobility at his nonprofit Wounded Warriors Abilities Ranch, nine years after a sniper bullet tore through his spine and left him medically dead in Haditha, Iraq.

Still under construction, the 10-acre sports ranch in Pinellas Park, a Tampa-area peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico, will feature a golf course, shooting range, ADA-equipped fitness stations, wheelchair sports court, fishing pond, water-sports accessibility and more to help “honor, strengthen and empower” wounded veterans, according to Delancey, whose fundraising efforts will fund development of the land donated by the park district.

Most importantly, the ranch is only 20 minutes from the Tampa Veteran Affairs hospital with a renowned spinal cord unit that treats newly injured veterans from all over the nation, and continues to rehab vets like Delancey from the southeast region.

The MXV not only makes work more stylish, it makes it easier for avid sportsmen such as Delancey.

“I have a bunch of adaptive toys,” Delancey said, before rattling off everything from his hand cycle to a tread-powered all-terrain wheelchair. “The MXV makes things a whole lot more convenient on my end.”

Delancey added insights as part of the initial focus group involved in the MXV, which took 18 months to build. Towing capability was one of the top three reasons customers wanted an SUV, according to BraunAbility.

“We wanted to make sure the MXV would fit a wide range of customers who need it,” explained Jim Probst, director of vehicle platforms for BraunAbility. “We wanted the usability of a minivan but to retain the ruggedness of an SUV.”

Making life easier and more accessible is at the core of BraunAbility, a small company with a global footprint. About two hours southeast of Chicago, headquartered in rural Winamac, Ind., BraunAbility employs about 850 people in a town of 1,200. Yet BraunAbility accounts for an estimated 60 percent of the consumer market share for wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs).

Ralph Braun (1940 to 2013) founded BraunAbility in his hometown after years of modifying vehicles and creating mobility solutions because of his own use of a manual wheelchair, starting when he was a teenager. His first creation, a tri-wheeler that looks like a three-wheeled scooter topped with a lawn chair, is on display at the factory that modifies minivans and now an SUV.

Modifying a wheelchair-accessible vehicle is technologically complex. A Ford Explorer, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Dodge Grand Caravan or Chrysler Town & Country comes in the same way it left the automaker’s factory.

Then it is gutted and modified in a manually powered production process that is too customized to use a traditional automated assembly line.

Once the base-model WAV is fitted, it gets shipped to one of over 200 National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association-certified mobility dealers, who then help the customer customize it even further to suit his or her particular needs.

Disabilities are as varied as the people who have them, so modifying a wheelchair-accessible vehicle is all about customization.

Hand controls mounted on the left side of the dash enable paraplegic drivers, for example, to control throttle and brake, similar to on a boat.

One in five elderly people have mobility issues, and the graying population will only contribute to that.

“The MXV is an incredible breakthrough for us — and not just the vets coming back from war,” said Kevin McMahon, vice president of sales and marketing at BraunAbility, “It’s everybody who says they want some choice, something that says it’s more me. The Explorer captures that youth and vitality and the idea that life is out there — go get out.”

BraunAbility just launched its first certified pre-owned program this year to give consumers another option.

“We take a pre-owned vehicle with some depreciation knocked off of it; we convert that to bring the price point down,” McMahon said, adding that BraunAbility offers the CPO, not the dealer.

CPOs make sense especially for costly WAVs, though there is still a cost to adapt to the new customer’s needs.

Most automakers have programs to help equip drivers with disabilities, and resources at www.NMEDA.org cite funding help from federal, state and local sources.