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Have you ever had concerns about the inequities facing wheelchair users who need to rent vans equipped with ramps or lifts when they travel? It bugs me, so in researching a recent column for New Mobility magazine
, I contacted several of the major car rental companies to inquire as to the availability of lift- or ramp-equipped rental vans. All of those companies responded back, almost immediately, with their recommendations that I contact the major wheelchair van rental companies instead.
Please understand that I am a big fan of the specialized companies who rent wheelchair vans at scattered locations throughout the country. I have rented from them before, and even though they were relatively expensive it was my only option if I wanted to travel where public transportation could not take me.
With limited opportunities (and numbers of clientele) to recoup their investment in the specialized vans, the higher fees the specialized (and much smaller) wheelchair van rental companies charge are definitely justifiable. However, it certainly seems unfair when the multibillion dollar car rental companies that serve the rest of the traveling public get off the hook when it comes to providing equal access to their services as is required of other public accommodations under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act
Rather than getting into the issue of whether their practices are illegal, I decided to try a more reasoned approach: letters to those in command. Ideally, the car rental companies would immediately begin ordering new lift and ramp-equipped vans from the members of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA)
. Those orders should provide a pleasant boost to the bottom line for the companies that make and sell those vans, for months and years ahead.
Pollyanna? Maybe, but that has never stopped me in the past. In case you want to join me in a letter-writing campaign, here is an example of what I intend to send to each of the major car rental companies, personally addressed to those in charge:
Mr./Ms. big bucks, CEO
Bigtime Car Rental Company
I am writing to call your attention to a situation that has apparently been overlooked by your company when you purchased the hundreds of vehicles needed to replenish your fleets on an annual basis. Knowing that customer service and price are critical factors when it comes to competition with other car rental agencies, perhaps you are unaware that an entire segment of the customer base for rental vehicles is not being served by your company. This overlooked segment of the traveling public is people who have disabilities that require the use of mobility equipment that is too heavy or cumbersome for them to independently transfer into a vehicle; power wheelchairs and scooters are examples of these mobility devices. For their needs, as drivers or passengers, a van or similar vehicle equipped with a wheelchair lift or ramp is a necessity.
I am one of those "overlooked customers," and recently contacted your company to inquire about the availability of any vans equipped with lifts or ramps, at any of your locations. The response I received was that you did not rent such vehicles, but that I should contact a company that specializes in wheelchair vans instead. This information was given without apology, so obviously it is the normal action taken when somebody inquires about renting such a vehicle.
As a person with a disability who needs a van for my basic mobility needs, whether at home or while traveling, I find your response to be unsatisfactory at best, as well as discriminatory. To my knowledge, no other type of company renting to the general public can dismiss its obligations to serve all segments of that public in such a flippant manner.
Since you have created accessible parking spaces at your locations, and also require your subcontractors to provide wheelchair accessible shuttle vans to transport customers between airport terminals and those locations, I know that you are aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That law identifies sales and rental establishments as "places of public accommodation" covered by Title III, and states that: Places of public accommodation may not discriminate against people with disabilities and may not deny full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services they offer (www.ada.gov). Based on that, it appears that your company is not meeting your obligation under the law and perhaps should consider changing your corporate policy regarding wheelchair van rentals. I'm guessing that your legal counsel might agree with me.
There may be members of your management team who don't want to purchase such vehicles, claiming that they are too expensive. A minivan with a ramp that opens manually is no more expensive than many of those hybrid or luxury automobiles, sports cars and commercial vehicles that you rent or lease out on a regular basis. For those who might think it would be difficult to find wheelchair vans to purchase, they are readily available for purchase or test drives from dealers located throughout the country. They are also available direct from the manufacturers, and all of these outlets can be found through the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (nmeda.org).
Another argument you might hear could be that there wouldn't be enough business to justify the purchases. Having a ramp installed does not make the vehicle less attractive to anyone who might be seeking a van for use on a family vacation or for their business needs. They have plenty of interior room, and those ramps are very handy for loading everything from luggage to child strollers. The availability of such vans in your fleet might even give you a leg up on your competitors.
If you're still reluctant to make the move, you might consider entering into trial contracts with current mobility van rental companies or dealers to assure that customers can enjoy the convenience of access to your many airport locations, reservation system, shuttle service, competitive pricing and ability to drop the vehicle off at a different location when the trip is completed. That is the type of equal access to Rental Services that the ADA requires.
I am looking forward to hearing about your new policy, and being able to spread the word about it to other potential customers who are disabled. In the meantime, I am sending a similar letter addressed to your competitors. Thank you for your consideration, and if you have any questions about the above please give me a call.
Just Looking for a Ride
cc: U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division
© 2013 Michael Collins