by Tony Whitney
I’ve always had an interest in equipment provided by automakers to help people with disabilities of one kind or another, partly because I’ve had several relatives and friends who suffered mobility problems – everything from paraplegia to just plain aging joints.
Designers try and make vehicles easy to use for all kinds of drivers and passengers, regardless of whether they have a mobility problem or not, but tucked away on the options lists, there are often items which probably deserve more publicity.
The most recent example I came across was General Motors’ Sit-N-Lift power seat system, available as an optional extra on its minivan range – Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Montana and (still available) Oldsmobile Silhouette. A recent announcement mentioned that the system is to be offered on various GM products that fall into the “crossover” category. According to GM, no other automaker offers seating like this as a dealer-installed option.
The people at GM did some research and decided that there were something like 80-million people in the US over the age of 50, to which can be added a proportionate number of Canadians. More than 50-million North Americans have some sort of disability and many more suffer from problems associated with aging like arthritis, back soreness or other physical needs that aren’t met by conventional vehicle layouts. Auto designers believe that vehicles have to be more flexible and accommodating to meet what is a growing demand keyed to a “greying” population.
Of course, people with very severe disabilities have specialized vehicle choices, often involving customized vans adapted to their demands. This is another subject altogether and perhaps a topic for a future column. The Sit-N-Lift system is more suited to people who simply find it difficult to get in and out of conventionally-equipped vehicles. It’s also a great help to their caregivers.
Basically, Sit-N-Lift is a fully motorized, rotating lift-and-power passenger seat that makes it easier for older folk or people with mobility problems to enter and exit the vehicle. The seat is located in the second row with handy access through the minivan’s sliding right-side door. The seat is operated by a handheld remote control that rotates the power bucket seat which then extends out of the vehicle and lowers. There’s no doubting the value of a seat like this for someone with arthritis or other mobility-impeding challenge. Although standard minivans are easy enough to get in and out of for people without any problems, they can still be a chore for an older person, even if all they suffer from is basic aches and pains.
Click image to enlarge
The lift capacity of this seat is 300 lb. and it includes a slide-out footrest for some extra support and stability while the system is in motion. The seat lowers to around 17-inches from seat bottom to ground, which should be just fine when there’s a helper around. Interestingly, some 2001 model year and later GM minivans can be retrofitted with this system. Also in place is a scheme where a dealer can transfer a Sit-N-Lift seat from an older minivan to a new one. This “GM Mobility Reimbursement Program” covers removal and reinstallation costs of transferring the seat and wiring it into the new van’s electrical system. The seat is a $7,550 option, but it’s worth bearing in mind that a custom adapted van for someone with a disability can cost a very substantial amount of money – often over $50,000.
On another front, GM has announced that its OnStar communications system will now be available with a toll-free text (TTY) telephone help line for subscribers who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired. GM’s optional OnStar, which has been widely publicized in Print, TV and radio advertising, enables the user to talk to a central help station on all kinds of topics from vehicle breakdown, car theft, keys locked in vehicle, personal security, customer care issues and a host of other problems. In the past, the system has probably been of little use to anyone with hearing or speech problems, but the new line will make life a lot easier for them when out in their vehicles. OnStar subscribers can contact an advisor using a TTY device from outside the vehicle for stolen vehicle assistance, remote door locks, remote lights and horn (for locating a “lost” vehicle in a parking garage) and other issues.
For the subscriber with hearing or speech problems, the TTY text device plugs into a land-line or mobile phone and will transmit text to a “live” OnStar staffer who is trained in the use of TTY devices and available “round the clock” for more serious problems.
Incidentally, OnStar, which is claimed to be North America’s leading provider of in-vehicle safety, security and information services, is licensed to several other automakers, so you don’t necessarily have to buy a GM product to enjoy its benefits.
Clearly, life is getting a little more endurable for people who like to travel by road, but have physical challenges of one kind or another. It would be no surprise to see other automakers paying more attention to this key area of customer service, as many are doing already.