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The First Car Purpose-Built for the Disabled

After decades of hacking conventional vehicles to accommodate wheelchairs, the MV-1 finally presents a vehicle designed especially for the disabled.

It’s a wonder it’s taken so long, but in the last few years, products for the physically impaired have finally entered the sphere of high design. Last year, interaction designer Graham Pullin’s book Design Meets Disability, made the case for greater style in prostheses, hearing aids, and other medical devices. Earlier this year, Yves Béhar released fashionable (yet affordable) eyeglasses for sight-impaired kids in Mexico.

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Now, a small American car company called VPG is putting out the first-ever purpose-built vehicle designed specifically for wheelchair accessibility.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act has led to improved accessibility in restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, and on public sidewalks, there is still no car that emerges from the factory wheelchair-ready. The only option for wheelchair dependent individuals up to this point has been a conversion on a standard vehicle. “Converters compromise structural integrity,” says VPG CEO Dave Schembri, “The car’s factory warranty goes away, the safety ratings are no longer applicable–it wasn’t built for that reason.” According to Schembri, there are 1.5 million converted vehicles in operation today and 4 million Americans use wheelchairs to get around.

If criteria exist for “good design” for disabilities, one of them certainly involves replacing stigma with style, and the MV-1 makes the switch. It’s no aerodynamic sports car–more like a cross between a Scion XB and a Honda Element–but, as Schembri puts it, “it doesn’t scream disability and it doesn’t draw stares.”

The five-year development process involved numerous focus groups that engaged disabled people as expert co-designers. The result, beyond a sleek silhouette, includes a wide rear passenger door with a shallow-sloped entry ramp, which stores beneath the floor of the car instead of taking up interior space. Individuals who operate their own chairs can easily get themselves into the vehicle unassisted, and a power ramp assists those who can’t. The configuration allows wheelchairs to sit up front next to the driver, facing forward, further normalizing the experience.

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The MV-1 will be available to anyone who wants one, from individual consumers to medical services companies, but Schembri says it has particular appeal initially for paratransit fleets and taxis. In addition to offering a more comfortable ride to drivers who spend all day carting people around, the car also has some nice environmental and cost-saving benefits, with the option of a factory installed compressed natural gas fuel system. Between the domestic availability of the CNG and the domestic manufacturing of the vehicle (with Ford V8 engine and transmission), the product is unabashedly all-American.

Most importantly, the MV-1 puts a brand new, safe, and relatively sexy car within reach of a very large population who previously lacked options. “From a social perspective, we all have the right of accessibility,” says Schembri, “but for people with mobility issues to be discriminated against in this category is not right. This car is an option for a large segment of the market that has been woefully underserved.”

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