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The Rewards and Challenges of RVing with Disabilities

Wheelchair lift installed on exterior RV door
Mobility impairment is one of life’s biggest game-changers. If it happens to you, rest assured that RVing with disabilities is achievable and enjoyable. These tenacious Escapees have done it for years, and will show you how to feed the explorer in your heart to live your RV dreams.

Rolling with Life’s Surprises

Fifty-two years ago, when Al and Sharon (SKPs #86865) picked their honeymoon destination, they weren’t interested in typical newlywed getaways like Mexico or Hawaii. Instead, they packed up their four-wheel-drive Suburban with camping gear and headed to Big Bend National Park. Rugged and equipped for adventure in that old SUV, they kicked off a lifetime of exploring North America. “We could go just about anywhere we decided to go,” says Sharon. “And we still do!”

Like many former tent campers, they got hooked on RVing and never looked back. Two kids and a half-century later, they’re still roaming despite Sharon’s debilitating osteoarthritis and neuropathy, conditions that pose accessibility challenges on the road. Her health issues began around 2006 when Al retired from IBM and they started full-time RVing. 

They now have a home base in Texas, but the intrepid travelers still spend much of the year on the move in their handicapped-accessible motorhome with a mobility scooter in tow. When asked if she’s ever considered her impairments inconvenient enough to give up the nomadic lifestyle, Sharon gasps.

“No! There’s no real reason for me to feel that way. Yes, I have arthritis from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. And yes, it hurts, and I have problems moving . . . I don’t go on the hikes anymore, that is a frustration. But then, you don’t get everything you want in life,” she explains. “You take what you can get and should be happy with it.”

Living on Life’s Terms

 

Patrick and Colleen Lang (SKPS #151470) lived in Madison, Wisconsin, when they got the bad news. Colleen was diagnosed with Spinocerebellar Ataxia (SCA), a progressive, degenerative, and often fatal genetic disease that would slowly steal her ability to speak and walk. The prognosis was grim, but they refused to let life come to a screeching halt. 

Undaunted by whatever the future held and tired of the grinding workday lifestyle that drained their energy, this couple went full speed ahead to kick off a full-time RVing dream. “We knew we had a limited amount of time to do what we’re doing. We do it now or we don’t do it,” Patrick recalls.

They quickly flew their comfortable suburban nest, and like any new RVers, Colleen and Patrick had to learn the ropes of full-timing. Along the way, they discovered the impact of the lifestyle on their mental and physical health. Driving days aren’t always smooth or easy, but despite the challenges, both feel happy with the decision to full-time over two years ago. “We have a lot of fun doing the things we do. We love getting out and it reminds me that we need to be seen,” writes Colleen.

 Through their blog and YouTube channel, she and Patrick find purpose in showing others that travel dreams can still happen when a disability strikes.

Easy Mods for RVing with Disabilities

These couples’ travels prove that RVing with disabilities is possible. But a few simple interior modifications are necessary to make life on the road safer and more comfortable. The extent of the mods depends on one’s mobility needs both now and in the future. 

For example, Sharon is ambulatory but still requires mobility devices to get around inside and outside the RV. She may need more later, but for now, those handicapped RV retrofits are still relatively simple and quick for Al to implement. The crafty retired IBM hardware technician has created a total of three accessible RVs since they started traveling, all only requiring a few simple hardware installations.

“So much of accommodations needed are dependent on the specific needs of the mobility impaired,” says Al. One of the first mods he completed in their original motorhome was installing grab bars throughout the RV. Next, he added a platform lift to help Sharon get inside. A few years later when they transitioned to a larger coach and Sharon needed more assistance getting inside, he installed a doorway lift with a captain’s chair. 

The riser proved so useful that he relocated it to their current RV, a 36-foot diesel pusher. Once inside the motorhome, Sharon uses a narrow four-wheel walker to move around. When they leave to go sightseeing, her mobility scooter goes inside the bed of their truck toad, ready for adventure. “Al has made it as easy as he can for me,” she says with pride. “He’s really capable of doing just about anything he wants to do.”

Sharon demonstrates how the lift Al installed helps her get in and out of their RV.

Customizing an Accessible RV

When an RVer with impairments needs more than grab bars inside the rig, customized accessible RVs are available from a variety of adaptive RV designers who can tailor the interiors to an individual’s needs. From heavy-duty towable manufacturers like Dunesport to Newmar’s luxurious adaptive coaches, there’s an accessible rig for every price point.

The Langs turned to Dunesport in Mesa, Arizona, a custom towable manufacturer. Patrick helped the designers create an affordable, accessible RV that could accommodate Colleen’s mobility challenges as they evolved yet feel like home. “It’s amazing! It’s huge and not what you would think an RV would have,” she says. 

The trailer is so comfortable they have no plans to stop traveling anytime soon. “They designed the rig with accessibility in mind, from the bedroom to the garage in back, so we are able to get in with a narrow wheelchair,” says Patrick. Other modifications include:

  • Three-foot wide entry doorways
  • A wheelchair lift in one entry
  • An accessible bath with a roll-in shower and low roll-under sink
  • Galley with below-counter microwave oven

Overall, they’re thrilled with the result. “At first I was like I really wish we had this and that, but two and a half years later, it’s been enough,” says Patrick. “You adapt to the space that you have. It’s worked well, we’ve been quite comfortable.”

Disability-accessible sink in RV bathroom
Wheelchair lift installed on exterior RV door
Handicap accessible shower and toilet in RV bathroom

Planning for Challenges of RVing with Disabilities

Thirty years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was written into law, RVers with disabilities are quick to discover that just like with hotels and airplanes, accessibility is lacking in most public and private campgrounds. “I’ve been in some parks that had an accessible site that really didn’t work out that well for us,” says Patrick. In the true spirit of “adaptive” travel, he and Colleen remain undeterred even when so-called “accessible” campsites are anything but easy to use. “We’ve just kind of adapted,” he explains. “If it’s not set up well for us, we just find a way to make it work for what we need.”

When you’re new to RVing with disabilities, you can ease into the adaptive travel experience by following some simple steps that Patrick and Colleen recommend.

  • First, call your destination and explain your needs. From the size of your RV to the type of mobility devices you need for outdoor access, try to get a clear picture of what you can expect.
  • Ask as many questions as you need to feel better on arrival day.
  • Check to see if any staff will be available for help on arrival day. You may not need the assistance but it’s comforting to know you can obtain it if necessary.

When you finally arrive, your spot might not be as accessible as you’d like, but if you know what to expect you can get into the right frame of mind and prepare ahead of time to create workarounds.

Next, know your limitations and recognize the signs that you’ve exceeded your comfort level while traveling. For example, changing locations used to be mentally and physically exhausting for Patrick and Colleen, but now they know some helpful ways to avoid the stress.

  • They start by keeping their driving distance to 200 miles at a time. “That’s what I can pull on a tank of fuel, and we only have to stop once for a bathroom break,” he explains. Between transporting Colleen from truck to trailer and allowing their two dogs to stretch and water the trees, one stop per day is plenty for them.
  • Upon arriving at their intended destination, he and Colleen try to spend at least three days exploring, relaxing, and rejuvenating for their next relocation.

Over the years and through many long trips to Alaska and Big Bend National Park, Al and Sharon  also discovered a low-key RVing style that works for them. “Our preferred method of travel is the Rule-of-2’s,” explains Al. “No more than 200 miles in a day, off the road by 2pm and spend at least 2 nights before moving again.” They may not always stick to it, but that’s the goal. 

Equipped with a robust solar electric power system and a fondness for dry camping, they plan their travels around extended family visits while winging it in-between. It gives the couple a chance to relax and recuperate without causing unnecessary travel stress.

“What makes this all doable is the fact we have our home with us,” says Al. Their rolling home is equipped with all the adaptive comforts Sharon requires and enables them to continue RVing into their late 70s, even while her mobility needs become greater. From visiting their Dallas-based daughter in spring to summer with the grandkids in Oregon, they rarely use RV parks and often rely on the Escapees Days End Directory to enjoy as many off-grid camping adventures as possible, while they still can.

Resources for RVing with Disabilities

R&J Mobility (https://rjmobilityservice.com)

Newmar Wheelchair Accessible RVs (https://www.newmarcorp.com/wheelchair-accessible)

Winnebago Accessibility Enhanced RVs (https://www.winnebago.com/models/motorhomes/accessibility-enhanced)

Dunesport Custom Toy Haulers (http://dunesport.com)

CoachLift RV Lift (https://www.coachlift.com/rv-lift.html)

RVing Accessibility Group (http://rvingaccessibility.org)

Escapees Discussion Forums (https://www.rvnetwork.com/forum/42-health-issues-and-medical-insurance/)

RVing with a Disability Facebook Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/rvwithadisability)

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Live Work Dream - Jim Nelson & Rene Agredano

Author

Rene Agredano #103274

Rene and Jim are enjoying their 14th year as nomadic entrepreneurs. Follow their travels at LiveWorkDream.com.. Follow their travels at LiveWorkDream.com.

9 Responses to “The Rewards and Challenges of RVing with Disabilities

  • As far as I know there are currently only two major rv manufacturers offering floor plans suited for people with disabilities. They are Winnebago and Newmar. I think they deserve special recognition in making sure they include these people when designing their rigs. There may be more companies to add also- these are the only ones I’m aware of.

    • Thanks Drew! Yes, those are the only two major players I located. Reached out to Newmar but never heard back. They do make a lovely rig!

  • Tracy Lauth
    6 months ago

    My husband is disabled. DuneSport designed and built a custom toy hauler to accommodate his needs. Thankfully, his needs are not degenerative. We love our trailer and enjoy a few months each summer of adventure. Escapees has opened our world to meet like-minded travelers. Thank you for the informative and well-written article.

    • Tracy I’m so glad you and your husband found DuneSport! They do make some amazing rigs! Enjoy your travels and thanks for the kind words. See ya down the road sometime 🙂

  • Planning to beat the shot clock. Kathy, my wife of 33 years and I plan to purchase a rig and begin our great American tour SOON. Thanks for featuring the handicapped RV segment. I have managed to adjust my activities to manage a career in real estate in spite of 40+ years of MS, COPD, osteoarthritis and now AMD, only one eye so far, that just turned wet. Kathy is 10 years younger and in great health. We hope to get on the road 2022 but I will have to do all the Grunt Work. Being a builder/remodeler converting the rig or installing accommodations should be minor problems. But learning from others has been my life and all ideas for adjustments are greatly appreciated as are the ones in the articles you included. Thanks again for the thoughtful articles. Bill and Kathy Mays Plano, Tx ( soon to be “LivingRoom2roam”) maybe👍🦕

    • Bill and Kathy I love your spirit! DO it! And please keep in touch with me, I’d love to follow along. Thanks for the nice note.

  • Chuck Wilhite
    4 months ago

    THANK YOU! I have been looking for RV disability resources for several years planning our upgrade to full time. My wife is in a wheelchair and I have ramped our used 5th wheel Toy Hauler (profiled in Trailerlife May 2020) but remained frustrated by narrow camper doors and rough campsite ground. We usually follow the campsite steps outlined by Patrick & Colleen by calling ahead (especially for dry sites), limiting travel to 6 hours a day, and our solar system usually keeps us cool or warm for days at a time. Oh yea, the lift captain chair in the truck is a life saver. Thank you again,

  • Rachel Ford
    4 months ago

    Thank you for the article on RV’ing with disabilities. While my husband and I are physically mobile, he recently experienced kidney failure requiring Dialysis. Through research we discovered peritoneal Dialysis which allows us to travel with a machine that treats him each night while he sleeps and does not require clinic dependence 3 days a week. While traveling, the supplier provides everything we need monthly, delivered directly to our campsite. I strongly recommend to anyone needing Dialysis, that they check into this type so they can continue to be mobile and enjoy their life.

  • Teri Graham
    4 months ago

    Cheers to you, muy Lady & hats off to you Sir Hubby. Your story gives me some warmth and a bit of hope & faith back to mankind. I have been disabled for 5 or so years now. I decided when I get my money from Disability that this is exactly what I want to do, see my country. After being homeless and pennyless, with no where to be we bought a small camper and we can go where ever. There are still essential things that I need to invest in & articles to familiarize myself with and we have been told to go. It takes me twice as long to get things done and I have nobody to rely on. Can I hook & unhook, & connect & maintain, ect all by myself? Or was I just dreaming? Thanks for letting me vent, fret & worry.

    TeeAnn

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