One of the good schemes the government still does is ‘Motability‘ – I’d even say it’s sort of social model based. There are two sides to the scheme – the government bit and the charity. The government side is the bit of the scheme where anyone who gets higher rate Personal Independence Payments (PiP) or Disability Living Allowance (DLA), mobility component, can give up that part of the benefit, in exchange for leasing a car. Most leases are for three years (the more complex cars like mine are for five) and it comes with servicing, repairs, insurance and breakdown cover. The charity side deals with ‘grants’ mostly for those of us who need complex (and therefore costly) adaptations but they also do grants for people who can’t afford the advanced payment on the car. These are means tested. I’m a massive fan of the scheme, however I do have reservations over how the grants are awarded (more on that later).
When there isn’t an awful war going on, coupled with the consequences of Brexit and COVID-19, car manufacturers mostly love Motability as it virtually guarantees them a steady income, however in the current climate more and more cars are being taken off the scheme as companies are prioritising the few private customers they can get through the system as they make more money on those sales. Advance payments are rising massively and cars are taking months and months to come through.
Most disabled people who use the Motability scheme order a car without any adaptations – they may require the car to have certain features to accommodate their needs (for example, not be too low down to get in and out of easily, heated seats to help with pain, a large boot to fit mobility equipment etc.) but in ‘normal’ times they can drive their brand new car right out of the dealership. However, people like myself often need adaptations to be able to drive and have independence.
I’m now on my fourth car on the scheme. The first was a Suzuki Wagon R – nice little car but I had no end of issues with the adaptations. The second and third were Fiat Qubo’s – again a nice little car. The first Qubo was great and I didn’t have many issues with it, the second was more problematic but it was an amazing orange colour which I will miss!
All three of these cars I was awarded a full grant to cover the advance payments and the cost of the adaptations (In total it would have come to £20-30K each car). My latest car is a Peugeot Rifter and again I’ve been awarded a grant but this time I also had to pay towards the advance payment – which I expected. It’s a much more boring blue this time, it’s also much bigger!
Even with my payment towards it, the grant this time was bigger than the others because it’s a bigger car and the cost of everything in the car industry (and everywhere else) has risen. Without a grant I wouldn’t be able to afford to drive, which means I wouldn’t be able to work or leave the house, however I do worry because to qualify for the grant for this type of vehicle (Drive from wheelchair; WAV) you have to be in work, education or voluntary work for at least 12 hours a week. It’s easy to imagine a time where this will not be possible for me and then I wouldn’t be able to get a new car. It also means that when I retire I will be housebound as I won’t be able to afford the upfront cost of a vehicle, unless things change.
As I’ve mentioned above, I drive from my wheelchair – no transferring to a regular drivers seat, my chair automatically clicks into position and away I go! I have a range of adaptations on the car as well including extremely light steering (if you have it lighter it has to be a whole different steering system which involves the removal of the steering wheel), electric…well everything, hand controls with a trigger control (this is a lot lighter than the standard ‘push pull’ hand control systems, bigger and more mirrors, an electric handbrake, the lockdown system for my chair, and the ramp at the back of the car. There is also the ability to swap the passenger seat to the drivers side and for me to travel as a passenger which is handy in certain circumstances, however the hand controls and light steering make it tricky for mum to drive so we have never actually done this.
As you can see, this car has space for three passengers, but as my previous cars were a lot smaller I either only had room for one passenger or three but you had to bring a very heavy bench down in the back for the option of three. These complex adaptations are done in two stages. ‘Stage one’ conversion basically guts the car (removes all the seats), lowers the flooring, and alters underneath for example they remove the standard fuel tank and fit a custom one (which is usually smaller). This allows them to install the ramp which doesn’t have a steep gradient. This new car also has a hydraulic system that lowers the suspension when the ramp is deployed which is pretty neat. The altering of the fuel tank usually causes some issues with the car recognising accurately how much fuel you have, and in my first car there was also a back-flow when filling up, so we had to be really careful and do it really slowly otherwise mum or dad would be covered in fuel (dangerous and unpleasant). The need to alter the underbelly of the car is also going to cause issues with making WAV’s electric. The battery for the electric car is underneath, just like a standard fuel tank, as this is the safest place for it. To make the car a WAV this would need to be moved and/or altered in size and shape, however there are strict safety rules about who can do this and what can be done, putting a huge financial burden on conversion companies. WAVs also generally use more battery power because we have so many electric adaptations and so we would need a great capacity battery. On top of this charging the car mid-journey is going to be a massive problem for a lot of us. I can’t fill my car with petrol but I can usually plan journey’s so I don’t need to, or find a garage where the staff can help. The new charging points are rarely accessible to a wheelchair and I’m not convinced I will have the strength to pull the cable to the car even if it was. This is a massive worry as there doesn’t seem to be much thought about this, and car manufacturers are producing fewer diesel and petrol versions of their cars. Even now this is pushing us into larger vehicles – which is part of the reason my new car is much bigger than my last.
Once the first stage in complete, it then goes to another conversion company for second stage. At this point (partly because I’m so small) they build the floor back up inside the car, have the steering lightened, fit the lockdown system for my chair and the passenger seat, fit the hand controls and mirrors, fit the extended movable seatbelt socket and other little bits and bobs. This time around this all took approximately 6 months but I was really lucky because the first stage converters had a batch of Rifters in stock ready to convert. In the current climate where everyone is struggling to get cars, this could have meant I was waiting for a year or more if they hadn’t got the stock.
As I have mentioned already, all my cars have had issues with the adaptations. One of my friends was told that they ‘aren’t built to be used like this’ – meaning regularly 🤯 When there are issues I usually have to work out if it needs to go to the car dealership, conversions company 1 or 2 and then wait for it to be fixed. It can mean weeks without a car, especially if it goes to the dealership because they just aren’t used to cars like mine, and generally don’t listen when I tell them things have been altered and then mess it up more. Thank-fully Motability are good and either try to hire you a car or give you a budget to get taxi’s for essential journeys. RAC are also really good (and their van pretty much know the way to our house), the people who work for them generally say they love coming out to complex cars like mine as they are so interesting and to be fair they seem to be getting better and better at understanding the systems. It’s tricky though because there are so many versions of the adaptations it would be impossible to fully train them. I was chatting to the engineer who worked on stage 2 of this car and he was saying it’s getting harder and harder to adapt cars now due to all the tech and safety systems. For example, I have to have my airbag switched off which sometimes causes warning lights and things to pop up, and this car has had an annoying warning come up to remind me to put my hands on the steering wheel – bit tricky when one hand is on the brake and the other is on the steering ball!
The hand over for this latest car was meant to happen a couple of weeks ago but there was an issue with the ramp – I hope it isn’t a sign of what’s to come! I have the car now and the first stage conversion company is coming to fix it on Monday. Part of why I chose this car over the other that the grants team was willing to fund (you only get a very small choice when applying for a grant – actually this is the first time I’ve had a choice at all), is because the first stage conversion company actually comes out and does the annual service on my driveway! Usually this is a massive cause of stress for me because of the lack of knowledge dealerships have about adapted cars. They seem good though so far and the guy for this area has given me his mobile number to call at any time if I have any issues. He says that he can usually get people out within 24-48 hours which I’m pretty impressed with!
I’ve driven the car a few times now. It’s taking some getting used to because it’s so much longer and wider than my previous ones but I’m getting more confident. As usual I found myself in a tricky position the other day, down a really narrow road, with cars on both sides and then at a dead end! It certainly gets you used to things quickly! My next test of my skills is to go to Wentworth Garden Center which involves country roads. The tech in this car has vastly improved from my last one. My phone connects seamlessly to the in car system (which lets face it is my main priority) and it has a reversing camera which is helpful. Oh and electric mirrors so they are less likely to get swiped off when parked on a road!
Tomorrow I’m off the Meadowhall in the evening, my first journey on my own! Wish me luck! 🚙