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Whoever said that it's not where you're going but how you get there that counts must have been referring to accessible ramp vans.  After all, if you've shopped for a keeling ramp van, you know that all vans provide an interior spot for a wheelchair; yet, van conversions vary in accessibility methods, from side to rear entries, from fold-out to in-floor ramps, from open to side-by-side seating layouts, where based on one's vehicle needs and lifestyle, not all conversion methods will prove equally accessible.

Iny or Outy?
The staple of a ramp van is just that - the ramp - and in the side-entry market, ramps are available in fold-out and in-floor versions.  Most traditional in nature, fold-out ramps are what-you-see-is-what-you get, where the ramp resides vertically in the interior, just inside the passenger side door, where it folds out like a drawbridge.  

Fold-out ramps are reliable, and work well in less-than-ideal curb scenarios, where a fold-out ramp can allow access to a curb that's slightly taller than the van's floor.  Because fold-out ramps stow in the open passenger compartment, they're less prone to surface corrosion, where the well-circulated environment discourages dampness from lingering when the ramp is used in rain and snow.  

Fold-out ramps can have issues, however, where they consume interior space, and block the passenger entry when folded.  Based on the quality and age of the conversion, fold-out ramps can also prove noisy, rattling in the passenger compartment when on the road.

In-floor ramps, as the name suggests, slide into the floor at the side passenger door threshold.  During use, the ramp slides straight out, then the outside edge lowers into place.  

The foremost benefit of in-floor ramps is that they are virtually invisible when stowed - that is, they don't block the door for passengers, or consume any interior space.  What's more, because in-floor ramps don't need side linkages like fold-out ramps, they typically have an extra " of usable ramp width over fold-out ramps.

In-floor ramps can prove tricky at the top threshold under some circumstances, where they have a secondary flap, creating a sometimes steep, sharp transition from the ramp to the van if the ramp is deployed on a sloped surface that skews the ideal angle.  Further, because in-floor ramps stow in a dark, enclosed compartment, surface corrosion is sometimes an issue in harsh winter climates, where the ramp may stay damp longer than a fold-out ramp.  In the realm of parallel parking against curbs to deploy an in-floor ramp, too high of curb can prevent use of the ramp, as it slides straight out rather than folding out and down like a fold-out ramp, potentially butting against the curb rather than deploying atop it.

The foremost debate regarding one ramp style being better than the other stems from the notions that in-floor ramps provide less headroom and decreased reliability compared to fold-out ramps.  The fact is, there's typically only 1" of headroom lost with an in-floor ramp compared to a fold-out ramp, as in 57-3/8" versus 58-3/8" of headroom.  Additionally, regarding reliability, in-floor ramps are very simple, reliable mechanisms, so although they seem more mysterious than fold-out ramps, both feature equal durability.

This Way or That Way?
Ramp vans are available in either side- or rear-entry conversions, with important considerations for each.  Side-entry allows the most room to maneuver in the van, where most users can rotate a wheelchair 360-degrees.  For passengers, side-entry conversions seat five, plus one wheelchair, and provide direct access to the front driver and passenger seat locations, where quick-release seating can be removed to allow full wheelchair access.

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In parking a side-entry conversion, an accessible or parallel space is required for ramp deployment, limiting parking choices in parking lots.  Similarly, side-entry conversions can be difficult to use in narrow garages, where there may not be the room needed beside the van to deploy the ramp.

Rear-entry conversions all but eliminate parking issues, allowing ramp deployment out of the rear of the van from almost any parking space, and in many garages.  Further, most rear-entry conversions allow for increased passenger capacity, seating up to six passengers plus one wheelchair (the wheelchair user parks in-between the two middle-row passenger seats, then a bench seat folds down, behind the wheelchair user).

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While placing wheelchair seating between the two middle-row passenger seats provides the ultimate in social integration - it truly feels like you're seated side-by-side with other passengers - space is limited.  The floor channel of rear-entry vans is typically around 31"-wide, which is plenty of space for all but bariatric wheelchairs.  However, the space between the passenger seats can prove dramatically narrower.  If standard, factory passenger seats are used, there can be as little as 18" between the seats - not enough room for many wheelchair users to fully pull into.  Conversion companies do, however, offer narrower passenger seats, if needed, increasing the wheelchair space to 30"-wide, but seated passengers lose some comfort on the slimmed-down seats.

Conventional rear-entry vans feature a "half-drop" floor, meaning that the lowered floor channel stops behind the driver and passenger front seats.  More recently, a "full-drop" floor is available, allowing the wheelchair user to roll the full length of the van, parking in the front passenger's spot.  Because the channel follows a path from the rear, center to the front, right of the van, it eliminates some passenger seating, allowing a maximum of three seated passengers plus one or two wheelchair user, or only two seated passengers if a wheelchair is up front.  For self-drivers, rear-entry conversions require transferring into the driver's seat, where a pivoting, powered seat is used to facilitate transfers.

The Right Vistas
The fact is, all ramp van conversions have positives and negatives - all based on your needs, wishes, and lifestyle.  When shopping for a ramp van conversion, understand where you typically park, who rides with you, and where you most wish to sit in the vehicle.  Then contact your local dealer or the companies that sell direct, and try the ramp van conversions for yourself, seeing how your wheelchair fits the conversion.  You'll be surprised by how the right ramp van nuances can improve your vistas on the open road.

Published 5/06, Copyright 2006, WheelchairJunkie.com