Seeing a vehicle in a parking lot the other day, I was reminded of a space ship. With a quiet click and whir, the door glided open, the vehicle “kneeled,” a ramp slid out, and the driver rolled his wheelchair down from the minivan.

The van was from Advanced Modifications, a Maine business with offices in Hermon and Scarborough. They have been open since 2011, and company president Gina Bennett has worked in the industry for 17 years.    

The process of modifying vehicles for people with disabilities starts when the customer goes to a driving evaluator, who tests the driver and makes a list of equipment to be installed. A company such as Advanced Modifications installs the equipment. The driver practices and goes on to take a Bureau of Motor Vehicles driving test that includes handling the modifications.

Advanced Modifications is a dealer for Vantage Mobility International and Eldorado Mobility, two manufacturers of wheelchair-accessible vans. The company also takes customers’ existing vehicles and installs equipment such as hand controls and left foot controls for the accelerator and brake. Advanced Modifications services its vehicles, wheelchairs and scooters, and also offers commercial applications such as vans and busses.

The wheelchair-accessible vans come with lowered floors, and they meet all federal and state requirements. Customized for the user, they must comply with safety standards and maintain structural integrity.

Bennett said her company is focused on making sure vehicles are perfectly suited to each individual. One vehicle was adapted for a driver with no arms. The driver lifts his right leg to steer with a spinner knob on the steering wheel, accelerates and brakes with his left foot, and operates the blinkers and horn with a toe.

She also worked with a professional trucker who found a tractor trailer with an automatic transmission. Advanced Modifications installed a lift to raise his wheelchair into the cab, and hand controls for accelerating and braking.

Technological advances are helping disabled drivers.  A new electronic hand control will override the foot pedal accelerator when it is in use,should the driver inadvertently hit the pedal during a muscle spasm. Electronic wireless spinner knobs for steering have the controls for blinkers, horn, and wipers on the knob itself, so a driver doesn’t have to release a hand from the steering wheel to activate them.

Many organizations help pay for vehicle modifications.  Vocational Rehab supports handicapped people to get back to work or school, including assisting with transportation. The Department of Veterans Affairs helps veterans with disabilities, the Travis Roy Foundation supports victims of spinal cord injuries, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society aids patients with MS.

The Finance Authority of Maine has low-interest loans to benefit those with disabilities, and even new car manufacturers will refund some modification costs.

The ability to drive is empowering, especially in Maine’s countryside and cold weather. For providing handicapped accessible vehicles, I appreciate the technical work of Advanced Mobility, and the financial support of charitable organizations. But most impressive in this scenario are the people who overcome their disabilities, get in their vehicles, and persevere with their activities.           

Ruth Morrison is an Automotive Technology Instructor and Department Chair at Southern Maine Community College. She holds certification as an ASE Master Technician and Advanced Level Specialist and was a former Ford Senior Master Technician.  


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