Adaptive Van Life

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PHOTO: A scenic picture of a black transit van with a man in a wheelchair being lifted up into the van. On the ground in front of the man is a labrador retriever. The man wears blue jeans, a gray t-shirt and a beach hat. Behind the van is a forest and a snow-covered mountain behind him.

Adaptive Van Life

Kirk Williams makes a mobile home out of an accessible van

Story by Kirk Williams
Photo by Kirk Williams

Let’s face it, not everyone loves to travel. Planning and preparation can be challenging. Add a disability, and the challenges only increase. The what-ifs are oftentimes so overwhelming that you end up staying home where everything is familiar and set up just for you.

It’s nice, it’s comfy, and it’s not for me.

It’s not that I don’t love home comforts, it’s merely that a stationary life terrifies me! I want to see the world and its different cultures, lifestyles and ideals. Getting outside of the country can quickly change your perspective on life. Sometimes you have to experience things firsthand.

I’ve figured out a new way to travel.

It’s not for everyone, but for those of us who like to get off the beaten path, take control of your destiny and have complete off-grid independence, nothing compares.

Welcome to adaptive van life.


Men's Group, Disability Issues. Click image to visit page.

On the road, I’ve learned to maximize my freedom as a C6-7 quadriplegic.

Before my accident in 2009, owning a van was never on my radar. But after needing a vehicle with a wheelchair lift and all the modifications to drive again, I ended up in a full-sized van, as many of us do.

The first thing I did was remove the seats in the back and built a bed platform. I wanted to go camping with my friends but setting up a tent and transferring off the ground was not an option.

Once I had a place to sleep, a light bulb illuminated an idea.

“This means you can camp ANYWHERE, Kirk!”

No more paying ridiculous sums for an accessible hotel room! That, and being able to carry medical supplies and spare clothing gave me the confidence to continue pushing.

It stinks, but I need to mention an important detail here: bathroom duty.

Sometimes it feels like my life revolves around when and where I can go to the bathroom. I plan trips around my ‘days’ and never want to get caught unprepared. For this, the van is a savior. Because space is limited, I have a travel shower/commode chair by Nuprodx and a trash can. The rest, you can figure out.

I began taking small weekend trips with friends, but it quickly escalated to cross-country tours and eventually a journey from Colorado to Alaska!

I didn’t know it yet, but this modification was revolutionary.

Three years ago, I flew to Peru. While it was amazing, accessibility is pretty much non-existent there. The best sightseeing often came from the passenger’s seat. That got me thinking about how neat it’d be to have my own vehicle and no bounds on my exploration or ability to pull over, take photos and have meaningful interactions with small-town locals.

The wheels were spinning…PHOTO: Kirk hangs out the side of his van on the wheelchair lift. He wears a red surf shirt, a tan hat, and is looking out towards a beach.

Two years ago I had the chance to design a new van from the ground up. I spent enough time in my previous van to know what I needed to survive independently, even in a foreign country. I over-researched until I came up with practical, reliable solutions.

My current camper van is so much more than a vehicle. It’s an extension of myself, my mobility and my independence. Anywhere the van can go, I can go too. And I carry everything I need with me.

The layout started with the necessary adaptive equipment to drive, including a Superarm Lift, 6-Way Transfer Seat and hand controls.

From there, the fun began: building an accessible apartment in under 60 square feet!

Photo: A photo of Kirk Williams laying on his bed inside his bed. He wears khaki pants and a blue shirt and is leaning out towards the back of the van. The back doors of the van are open and Williams is on a beach with an ocean in front of him.

I started by making a list of the most critical items. I was able to get the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Colorado on board to help significantly with the funding because this van is essentially a mobile office for my drone photography business. Certain items I knew would be covered. From there, a builder, Benchmark Vehicles, helped with the design.

We began with the largest items, like the bed, and made measurements: The bed frame, mattress and topper couldn’t be too tall. It’s critical that everything is as simple as possible. The easier it is, the more you’ll use it. Fortunately, I can sleep sideways which opens up space.

Next, the work area.

Without dexterity or abdominal functionality, I’ve learned that finding switches and plugs in an easy-to-reach spot is important. I’m constantly charging drone batteries, computers and cameras, so we had to calculate ample plugs, wiring and sufficient wattage. I also added USB and light switches near my pillow. Again, convenience is key!

Keep in mind, you don’t need a fully renovated van to enjoy this lifestyle! I was fortunate to have state funding that allowed me to build my dream vehicle, but I drove over 150,000 miles in my first van without any of these bells and whistles! The real magic lies in what you do with it.

I’m stoked to be taking this new van around South America with my brother later this year! Remember those roads in Peru? Now, I get to explore them on my own. I will be working with nonprofits to help bring mobility to those who can’t afford it and sharing my story online.

Hopefully, the social media presence will be developed into something where adaptive van users can network with one another to figure out solutions for mobile living. I’m hoping you’ll follow my adventures on Instagram at @Impact.Overland!

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Kirk Williams
Writer / Photographer
Kirk Williams is a quadriplegic adventure photographer and blogger who refuses to sit still. From rugby to world travel, Kirk has tried it all. His most recent discovery is a love for Overlanding, where he is embarking on a trip to South America in 2019 in his custom outfitted 4x4 Campervan.

Read more by Kirk Williams.

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