Disabled people have special car needs and they should get advice before buying, says James Ruppert

Although there are, of course, many levels of disability, the statistics are staggering. There are over 8.3 million disabled people in Britain - almost 15 per cent of the population. About 6.5 million disabled people are of working age - a fifth of the working population. More than half the population over 75 has some kind of disability, and one in four households has a disabled resident. There are 2.3 million blue badge holders, indicating that they have a serious mobility problem.

Although there are, of course, many levels of disability, the statistics are staggering. There are over 8.3 million disabled people in Britain - almost 15 per cent of the population. About 6.5 million disabled people are of working age - a fifth of the working population. More than half the population over 75 has some kind of disability, and one in four households has a disabled resident. There are 2.3 million blue badge holders, indicating that they have a serious mobility problem.

Among that number is Independent reader Mr Aegerter, who wrote to us with a simple request. He wanted to know where to get a vehicle that could accommodate a wheelchair for his wife so that they, and others, could get out and about.

Vehicles for disabled drivers and those with disabled access account for six per cent of the UK car market. There is a national scheme aimed at this sector called Motability. To be eligible for the Motability schemes you must receive either the higher-rate mobility component of the Disability Living Allowance, or War Pensioners' Mobility Supplement. An application for a car can also be made on behalf of a child aged three or older who is entitled to the mobility allowance.

If you receive an allowance, even if you don't drive you can apply for a car and propose two other drivers. There are two motoring schemes: a new car on a three-year contract-hire lease or a new or used car on hire purchase over two to five years.

Motability says that most of its customers choose contract hire for a new car. They like the convenience of a single, regular payment that includes comprehensive insurance, maintenance and breakdown cover.

Each month Motability produces price guides for the most popular cars on the contract-hire scheme, as well as a guide to hire-purchase rates. There is a wide choice and it should be possible to find what you want.

There are about 3,500 Motability dealers in the UK. Each has at least one Motability specialist, who can provide advice on which car best suits your needs. In Mr Aegerter's case, he will need to speak to a company or supplier familiar with wheelchair access. It is vital to speak to a vehicle converter whose work is fully approved by the manufacturer and will therefore carry its warranty. Contact the manufacturer to find out who its accredited converters are.

Atlas Conversions is one of the leading companies in this sector, and has been building bespoke conversions for over 20 years. It is approved by Renault, Peugeot, Fiat and, most recently, Vauxhall.

"It isn't simply a case of moving seats and putting in a ramp," says marketing manager Roger Tupper. "These vehicles have to comply with crash-test requirements, have fire retardant materials, and the wheelchair must be secured properly to the floor. The crucial element is getting the wheelchair in, and we do that by either lowering the floor, modifying the rear suspension so that it drops down, or fitting a hydraulic ramp." Mr Tupper says that on some conversions the acute angle of the ramp makes getting the wheelchair on board impossible or difficult.

"We think it is also important to use, where possible, standard production vehicles," he says. "None of our customers wants to be inside a Popemobile."

Atlas Conversions' best-seller is the Renault Kangoo, which has a suitably high roof. Fitting a lightweight folding ramp costs around £5,700, and a suspension system that drops down at the rear is £8,700 - on top of the cost of the vehicle.

Mr Aegerter may not even need a ramp. Atlas sells the Baboulin wheelchair, which cleverly and simply converts from a wheelchair to a car seat. He may not even need to buy a new vehicle. Atlas have a selection of warranted part-exchange ones in stock. Prices start at under £3,000 for a 1989 Astra, rising to £18,995 for a 2001 Volkswagen Sharan.

There are also other used specialists. Clarke Mobility in Kent has a large stock of vehicles that have been converted by leading companies, including Brotherwood, Gowrings, Constable and Versa. Brotherwood are working on new Mercedes Vaneo Taxi conversion - the Taxi Four2. It's a big vehicle and Brotherwood say it betters every aspect of the relevant European standard (ISO 10542). It can carry four able-bodied passengers plus luggage and can be transformed in less than one minute by folding the rear seats to carry a full size wheelchair with occupant, leaving the front seat for the partner or carer.

Mr Aegerter and anyone else in a similar situation needs to talk to as many specialists as possible. There are organisations that offer great benefits and advice. For example, for £10 a year you can become a member of the The Disabled Drivers' Motor Club. It might also be a good idea to see what is on offer at the Mobility Roadshow at Castle Donnington in Derbyshire on 17, 18 and 19 June.

Disabled Drivers Association www.dda.org.uk

Disabled Drivers Motor Club www.ddmc.org.uk

Disabled Living Foundation www.dlf.org.uk

Mobility Roadshow www.justmobility.co.uk

Atlas www.atlasconversions.co.uk 0239 275 6265

Clarke Mobility 01634 243596 www.gfclarke.com

Motability hotline: 0845 456 4566

Brotherwood www.brotherwood.com 01935 872 603

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