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Livermore to Castle Air Museum - Sun., February 25, 2024

Our February run will take us over backroads through the hills and valleys of the East Bay and out to the Central Valley and Castle Air Muse...

Touching True Story - The Accessible MINI

This was posted at North American Motoring by Chris Chappell and is quite touching -
The Accessible MINI!

My guess is that your MINI is as unique to you as mine is to me. Personal, fun, stylish and quick are among the many thoughts and adjectives that equate with the brand and my experience. However, my MINI, by pure necessity, has one more thing that yours probably does not ~ Accessibility.

Let me explain. In May of ’00 I was enjoying personal and professional success at a level I could of only dreamed about. I had worked very hard and was enjoying a budding Wall Street career, a new house, fresh matrimony, and my newest and most favorite toy; A Honda S 2000 sports car. In most categories of life that we all abide and aspire I was riding an 8 of a possible 10. Things were good.

On the morning of June 1st I was out with some friends on a fairly strenuous but not overly exerting mountain bike ride in the foothills of Denver. Coming down dinosaur ridge I was going about 40mph, looked behind me to see where my buddies were, and, in an instant, crashed ~ hard. Not your normal, “uh-oh I see it coming kind of crash” but entirely different where I flipped unknowingly end over end and slammed into the side of the mountain. The pain was horrific, my mind was in a panic; I knew that this was an extremely bad and critical situation! I was rushed to Saint Anthony’s hospital, literally read my last rites, and then endured 9hrs of critical care surgery to piece together my broken neck and injured spinal cord. Within an instant I had gone from a virile 35yr old man to a life now known as quadriplegia. I was paralyzed from my shoulders down. No voluntary movement or sensation from my chest to my toes. Seemingly my life was over, catastrophe.

Nine years later, through excruciatingly hard work, I’ve regained my career success, built a new, accessible home, survived a divorce, endured half a dozen surgeries, traveled extensively, have become a local and national disability advocate and have essentially re-built my life. Now, despite my permanent paralysis and the challenges of wheelchair access, my life is back to an 8.

Once I accepted the fact that the Honda and I should part ways, about three years after my accident, I didn’t really envision the opportunity to ever enjoy a sports car again. Sure, I had modified two trucks and the requisite Minivan but not the kind of vehicle that offers endless smiles, adrenaline rushes, and personal expression. Technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today and the selections, due to design, ergonomics, cost and configuration were very limited. Then along came MINI!

About three years ago I was volunteering at Craig Hospital, a spinal-cord injury model center here in Denver, where I spent the majority of my rehabilitation, and ran into another injured Craig graduate and his MINI. I watched him open the door, assemble his wheelchair from the driver’s seat, then transfer into his ‘chair’, lock it, and wheel away. It took about 2 minutes and I watched every movement and detail. I wheeled up to him and asked him about his car, a ’06 MINI Cooper R53. 

He gave me a little background, offered a few pointers and adjustment suggestions and then handed me the key. I looked at him, said: “You sure?” (a devilish and anticipatory grin on my face). I transferred in, left my chair by the curb, adjusted the seat and the mirrors, and took off! Within about 5 minutes I was enjoying the heck out of this car. Smooth, quick, quiet, incredible handling, gauges, toggles, switches, buzzers and sounds of many types ~ very cool! Within 10 minutes I was sold, I had to have one. Initiating the birth configuration sequence on the MINI website I created a Sparkling Silver ’07 “S” with just about every “package” available. The ordering process was a little frustrating locally but I ended up ordering CDCOOPR (my tongue-in-cheek homage to the legendary DB Cooper) and expected delivery from Baron MINI (KS) in June ’07, approximately 7yrs after that catastrophe on the mountain.

Why the MINI works? Accessibility for anyone is relative. Some people are too tall, some are too, short, wide, etc. for a particular make or model. For a ‘wheeler’ (wheelchair user) the challenges are wide and varied depending upon the user. The initial approach and unlocking sequence is good in the MINI. Either push a button on the door handle or on the key fob to unlock the doors. Then, although with some difficulty, pinching the latch within the door handle pops the door pretty well (this design could be improved slightly) allowing the user to swing the door fully open. The second challenge is door width. The wider a car door opens the closer I can get to the rocker panel and driver’s seat. Transferring from my chair to the driver’s seat, without the assistance of my leg function, is made much easier the closer I get. Trying to jump the gap between chair and seat is much easier when it’s 8 inches versus 1 foot (yes, 4 inches to a wheelchair user may as well be the grand canyon when it comes to height and distance). Once transferred into the driver’s seat I slide the seat all the way to the rear and lower the seat back almost flat (more MINI features). This cockpit space now allows me to reach outside the vehicle, pull the cushion off, quick-release my wheelchair wheels, unlock the foldable back and get ready to pull the pieces in. A quick flip of the passenger chair lock (excellent feature) allows me to push that seat forward and down creating a good sized space for rear cargo access. Once this sequence is in motion (45 seconds) I grab the wheels, lean them against the passenger rear window (I have the delete-a-seat kit). I then grab the folded frame of my chair, bring it across my chest, and gently place it in the back wedged in the sub-floor (can’t have any flying titanium when you’re cornering ;)). Then the cushion goes in the back, pop the seat up, slide it forward, seatbelt, and away we go.

The general ergonomics of the MINI are excellent. As a quadriplegic (4 limb impairment) my finger dexterity is essentially non-existent. However, the switches on the dash and throughout are within good reach, easily accessed, and, lucky for me, don’t require nimble fingers. I can keep the key fob and cell phone in my briefcase, access the sport button easily, use the paddle shifters, or knock the gearshift into manual mode for higher RPM fun! The clutch-less transmission is like a gift from the heavens for a former manual drive junkie.

Probably, the easiest and most inquisitive accessory I get asked about is my gas / brake arm and the “nekker” knob used for steering, higher speed cornering, etc. Essentially, the gas / brake arm (fully reimbursed by MINI) is attached underneath the steering column and extends, in my case, towards the driver’s side door which offers left hand control. The control arm pivots and has two very simple extensions, one to the gas pedal, and one to the brake. By simply moving the arm towards the floor you have acceleration. By pushing the arm forward, towards the bonnet, braking is then engaged. There are no other modifications or accessible accessories added, nor any interior changes. Everything else in my MINI is factory installed (stock) and offers other drivers standard normal gas / brake pedal function.

Overall, the MINI is a great car! Wide doors offer good access, interior space is very accommodating, the ergonomics are friendly and the simple control arm modification is sleek, unobtrusive, quiet and smooth. Outside the car it’s small and low body is reachable for wheelchair users who want to wash, wax and primp the exterior. With the bonnet opened the engine bay is also within reach if you need to add fluids, inspect, etc.

Every time I get into my MINI I get a huge grin inside and out (the anticipation gets me psyched up and excited!) I never realized how much fun, spirit, and joy I was missing after having abandoned my sports car experiences from the past. MINI has offered opportunity, resurrection and the waking of a dormant desire to strap myself in, put on the sunglasses, smile and set my hair on fire! Let’s Motor!!!

Thanks MINI!

Chris