Wheels Within Wheels
The take-it-for-granted joy and freedom of personal mobility can be stolen in a split second in a Texas football tackle or in a Los Angeles crosswalk. Sometimes the change is slower, but inexorable, as a disease encroaches. For the Moores, the Stiffs, and the Freemans these are stories of hardship and hope.
Many Winnebago owners don't know that the company has a Specialty Vehicles division. Over the decades, Winnebago has turned motorhome shells into bookmobiles, mobile command posts, showrooms, bloodmobiles, health clinics, and the first all-electric powered motorhome. It has also customized various models for travelers who use wheelchairs.
Ready-to-Buy Accessibility Enhanced Offerings
This January, at the 2019 Florida RV Supershow in Tampa, the company will debut three models of Accessibility Enhanced (AE) motorhomes. Ashis Bhattacharya, Winnebago's Vice-President of Strategy, lays out the business case, "Our research tells us there are nearly four million people today who use wheelchairs. For over thirty years, the company has been modifying coaches for accessibility on a custom order basis. It's a complicated process for buyers and we think we can improve that. We've selected three different coaches, spanning a range of prices and features, from which we can offer both ready-to-buy products and advanced customization."
The Adventurer is one of three new accessibility enhanced floorplans.
The three new AE products are based on both gas and diesel chassis. There's the gas-powered, entry-level Intent 30R/AE and the mid-priced Adventurer 30T/AE. The final step up in features and size is the Forza 34T/AE diesel pusher.
Roll-in bathrooms and showers are all part of the AE design.
All of these models have electric lifts to raise a wheelchair into the coach. The bathrooms are oversized for easy entry and use and, where possible, assist bars are added, and appliances and sinks adjusted for lower height access. There are also options for ceiling-mounted transport and an over-the-bed lift.
Meet the Owners: Why AE is a Game Changer
Owners of AE motorhomes usually come to the solution from two different experiences. The first are those who've been RVers before. With a change in health and mobility of one of the partners, they'd like to continue to enjoy as much of the mobile-living lifestyle as they can. The other, are people who never would have considered an RV purchase, but their circumstances caused them to look at an RV as an appealing mobility option.
Just over twenty years ago, Jerome Moore was a senior in high school when a devastating injury left him without the use of his legs. Today, he and his wife Catrina have built a fulfilling life together. Jerome's six-four tall frame fills his electric wheelchair.
Jerome and Catrina Moore in front of their new Winnebago AE coach.
The Moores have tried air travel which can be as hard on the wheelchair as the passenger. That's where an accessible RV makes travel much easier. In their newly modified Adventurer, Catrina expects that she'll be doing the driving, "but right now either my dad or Jerome's step-dad have been the drivers," she says. "We see ourselves taking trips like family reunions and vacations in the future."
An avid Dallas Cowboys fan, Jerome tests the new lift. Notice the lighted access lights on each side.
It was a big leap of faith for the Moores to buy a motorhome sight unseen. They worked with a local Texas dealer and directly with Winnebago to work out configuration and widths for the electric wheelchair. "It sure would have been great if we could have seen one first at a dealer," Jerome explains. "We'd even thought about driving up to Iowa to the factory, but we felt comfortable working with Sonya who was great in walking us through the process."
Sonya Kobriger has worked at Winnebago for close to 25 years. Her gentle, calming voice wraps a tranquility blanket around the complicated aspects of building an AE coach. Over the years, she has become a true expert in mobility challenged design. "It's my job to translate the customer's needs into a customized motorhome floorplan that works for them," she patiently explains. While her voice may be soft, it's clear she's both a passionate customer champion and an empathetic listener. "These are people who have had tough circumstances in their lives and my singular goal is to help make their lives easier and restore some sense of freedom and joy," she says.
That sense of joy was something Karen and Jan Stiff were afraid they'd lose. Karen and Jan spent years living in the scenic high desert on the east side of the California Sierras. They had owned RVs before which they used for both travel and a base camp for skiing and fishing in the nearby mountains. As Jan started experiencing neurological problems, walking became increasingly difficult. Both Jan and Karen were engineers by training which prompted them to look very analytically at their options. Karen did a lot of internet research and determined that Winnebago would be the best choice.
Jan and Karen Stiff have been long-time family RVers.
"I'll be doing the driving and width doesn't bother me," explained Karen. "It's length. And at 30' feet long, Winnebago offered the shortest motorhome that could be adapted."
As the Director of Specialty Vehicles and Advanced Technology, Jamie Sorenson loves the unique challenges of accessible design. Quick to smile, Sorenson exudes a relaxed style that belies the intense complexity of custom designing motorhomes for a wide variety of specialized applications.
His passion and enthusiasm are evident as he walks through a bay where an external wheelchair lift is being anchored. "Of all the different special purpose coaches we've built, nothing gives me greater satisfaction of seeing one of our accessible coaches on the lot, ready for delivery. Many people don't even know that this option exists. The idea that we will be increasing manufacturing output of accessible motorhomes to offer more choice and availability is an exciting game changer."
Yet as optimistic and positive these accessibility enhanced new coaches are, the fact remains that they exist to serve people where life has taken an unexpected curve. Such was the case of Mike and Cheri Freeman who, in 2013, received a call that no parent wants to get. Their vibrant, active twenty-three-year-old son, Patrick, had stepped into a crosswalk in LA and was struck by a car running a red light.
Cheri, Patrick and Mike Freeman in front of their new Forza.
Patrick suffered a massive traumatic brain injury that will require a lifetime of specialized care. The Freemans' lives were completely upended by this devastating injury. They sold their Colorado home and moved to southern California where their new full-time job was focused on Patrick's rehabilitation and continuing care.
A specialized lift helps to transfer Patrick into a wheelchair.
Patrick's condition deeply limited car travel with only short distances per day being possible. Air travel could only be done via the astronomical price of an air ambulance charter. Through lots of online research, Mike and Cheri found their way to Winnebago and ordered a highly modified Forza.
New adventures are now possible for the Freemans.
With the Forza, the Freemans travel cross country much more easily and comfortably. In a quiet moment where Mike Freeman was observing Patrick working hard at rehab to learn how to walk with an exoskeleton, he matter-of-factly explained, "Getting the Forza allowed us to return and relocate to our native home near Indianapolis where we have extended family and a highly supportive environment for Patrick. He really seems to thrive here."
Travel happy. Patrick and Cheri Freeman at home in their Forza.
Far beyond the satisfaction and fun that RVs bring their owners, Winnebago's Accessibility Enhanced products offer an even higher level of comfort to wheelchair travelers. And, as any RVer will tell you, it's nice to have all the comforts of home with you. In the case of Winnebago's Accessibility Enhanced products, the Specialty Vehicles division sees itself in the customer satisfaction business offering new freedom, independence, and dignity for disabled travelers and their families.