Wheelchair-accessible vehicles have come a long way in recent years. Their evolution is a testament to the power of innovation and the importance of inclusivity. From their humble beginnings to modern progressions, these vehicles have redefined mobility for individuals with disabilities.
To learn more about the evolution of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, keep reading about the past, present, and future of these important accessibility tools.
Laying the Groundwork
Before we get into wheelchair-accessible vehicles, we first need to understand the history of wheelchairs themselves. The first recorded device resembling a wheelchair was found in the 5th century BCE in China. This device resembled a wheelbarrow and was used to push people with disabilities around.
In 1595, an elaborate wheeled chair was built for King Phillip II of Spain. It was more of a portable throne than a true wheelchair, and it still needed outside help to propel it. The first self-propelled wheelchair didn’t appear until 1644 when a paraplegic watchmaker in Germany created a device similar to a hand bike that allowed him to get around independently.
By around 1760, the Bath chair, which was like a light carriage for one person, became more commonly used.
It wasn’t until 1933 that the first lightweight portable steel wheelchair was invented. In the past 90 years, the wheelchair has received many innovations, and today, people with disabilities benefit from powered wheelchairs, reclining and tilting wheelchairs, standing wheelchairs, sports wheelchairs, and smart wheelchairs.
Understanding the Evolution of Wheelchair-Accessible Vehicles
Even with all these advancements in wheelchair technology, people with disabilities still don’t have true independence without wheelchair-accessible vehicles that allow them to travel farther distances. Thanks to many innovations throughout the evolution of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, there are many mobility solutions available for people who use wheelchairs.
The Past: A Drive Toward Inclusion
Accessibility today isn’t perfect, but even in the recent past, it was more often overlooked. Wheelchair users faced a number of different challenges when it came to transportation — even greater than the challenges they face today. Because traditional vehicles are not designed with accessibility in mind, wheelchair users relied on retrofitting existing vehicles, which can be costly and often falls short of providing true accessibility.
The first single-seat vehicles for people with disabilities appeared in the 1920s and were known as “invalid carriages.” These small buggies were generally powered by small gasoline or petrol engines and did not require foot-operated control, allowing people with disabilities to travel farther distances and affording them greater freedom.
Starting in 1946, a British engineering company manufactured small, single-seated cars specifically designed for people with physical disabilities. These cars were made of plywood and aluminum and featured an 8-horsepower engine.
After World War II, this mobility technology experienced a boom. The British manufacturer Invacar produced these vehicles under a contract with the UK government to help injured servicemen looking for mobility solutions, and many other countries soon followed suit.
This technology improved for the next few decades, and over time, manufacturers developed more powerful engines, allowing these vehicles to reach greater speeds. Single-seater vehicles were produced until the 1970s, but their use significantly declined in 2003 because of safety concerns and new regulations.
In addition to these single-seater cars, General Motors and Ford both modified cars to be suitable for veterans with disabilities post-WWII. Steering wheel spinner knobs, hand controls, extensions, and alternate pedal configurations accommodated people with various physical disabilities.
The Present: Engineering Inclusivity
The precursor to today’s wheelchair-accessible vans was developed in the late 1960s when the rotary lift was introduced, allowing people with disabilities to ride in vans without needing to transfer out of their wheelchairs.
The mobility industry experienced a boom when Chrysler started manufacturing the first minivan in 1984. Ramp systems and dropped floors soon followed, allowing wheelchair users to drive their wheelchairs straight into the vehicle and remain in their chair for the duration of the drive.
Today, people with disabilities can choose from a wide range of accessible vehicles, including vehicles that have been retrofitted for accessibility and vans that were purposefully designed to be comfortable and accessible from the beginning.
The Future: Pioneering Possibilities
Where do we go from here? As today’s vehicle manufacturers innovate with empathy and integrate smart technology such as self-driving features, they can work hand-in-hand with designers, engineers, and advocates to create wheelchair-accessible vehicles that provide increased comfort and dignity while empowering their users.