Tiny Home Tours

Making Vanlife Wheelchair Accessible with Lisa Franks

February 07, 2024 Season 3 Episode 22
Tiny Home Tours
Making Vanlife Wheelchair Accessible with Lisa Franks
Show Notes Transcript

In today's episode, Ayana sits down with Lisa Franks, a trailblazer in multiple worlds! Not only is Lisa a Paralympian, but she's also a seasoned van-dweller. Dive into Lisa's journey as she shares her unique experiences and the obstacles she has overcome to make van life wheelchair-friendly. She offers valuable advice for individuals with disabilities contemplating van life and gives us the rundown on the various accessibility features incorporated into her van. Listen in to gain access to insights and helpful resources for those looking to live nomadically with limited mobility.

For full show notes for this episode click here!

To follow Lisa's journey check out her Instagram: @keepinitwheel306
Watch her YouTube videos here: @keepinitwheel306

Recommended Resources: 

  • Products Lisa has used to make nomad life more accessible: 
    • Super Arm Wheelchair Lift 
    • Freewheel
  • Check for Automotive Mobility Assistance Programs
    • Many car manufacturers will offer a rebate for installing adaptive equipment to a purchased vehicle. 
  • Apps to help find accessible trails/water fills/dumpsters etc. 
  • Grant opportunities to help with additional cost of adaptive equipment


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Intro: Welcome back to the Tiny Home Tours Podcast. The tiny house made me feel in my body this thing that I think I always understood, which is that there are no rules, like you're literally living in the moment. I know it's a cliches saying, but living this lifestyle consistently puts me in that mindset.

It's about keeping all of the things that matter to you and letting everything else go. I've been scared a lot of times. But I just, I jump anyways I guess. You have to jump. Join us each week as we share stories, wisdom, and practical tips from those who choose to have less and live more. 

Ayana: Hey everyone, this is Ayana. I'm back with another episode of the [00:01:00] Tiny Home Tours podcast. Today, we are joined by Lisa Franks. She has been a nomad for quite some time now, first living in the Honda Element and now in her van. And today we're going to get into her story, how van life has been for her, and particularly the angle of van life for folks with mobility issues.

So Lisa is in a wheelchair and has built her van out to be wheelchair friendly, has a lot of resources and tips for those who are hungry for the angle of getting into van life with mobility issues and creating an accessible experience when it comes to life on the road. So thank you so much, Lisa, for taking the time today.

We're stoked to have you. 

Lisa: I'm very happy to be here. Thanks for having me. 

Ayana: All right, so we have been starting out this new season of the podcast having our guests do two truths and one lie. So I'm very excited to hear what your three statements are. 

Lisa: [00:02:00] Okay, so I was trying to stick with just van life things, but I just couldn't come up with anything good.

So I'm gonna start with I had lunch with the Queen of England and my wheelchair lift broke down six months into van life. And last weekend I had to repair a flat tire in the desert all by myself. Ooh, judging by your face, I came up with some good ones. 

Ayana: You came up with really good ones. The only one that I hope is true is that you've had lunch with the Queen of England.

I really hope that that is a true one. Your wheelchair lift breaking down six months into van life. But I've watched some of the videos, It looks so trusty and sturdy! I also hope you didn't have to repair a flat tire or change a tire in the desert by yourself. I'm going to be optimistic and say that's the lie.

You did not have to change a tire by yourself in the desert. 

Lisa: Yes, that's good. I was like, there's no way she's going to [00:03:00] guess these, right? Yeah. 

Ayana: Wishful thinking! So, okay. Lunch with the Queen of England, please tell us more. 

Lisa: Yeah, I don't even know how that happened. I just I just was kind of buddy buddy with the premier of the province of Saskatchewan where I live and he was always a big fan of mine.

And she was doing a tour of Canada, well just I think Saskatchewan even, and so I got an invite. I was at the head table with her and the premier and we just chatted and it's funny because we weren't allowed to have cameras in there so there's no evidence that it happened. But it did. It did happen.

Ayana: That's incredible. How cool is that? I think that will be probably a first and only on the podcast, but I don't want to put any of our future guests in a box. So tell us kind of your nomad origin story. How did element life and van life come to be for you? 

Lisa: Well, it's probably two part, but I was always outdoorsy [00:04:00] as a kid and we were taking a lot of road trips as you know, growing up and then Once I started using a wheelchair, I kind of put that whole side on hold.

I didn't think it would be feasible at all, not accessible, and so I just kind of focused on sport throughout my life and competed in the Paralympics, and that was my life. And then a career ending shoulder injury way back in 2000, well, it started in 2008, just kind of put that competitive side out of reach for me and I went through years and years of chronic pain with that shoulder injury.

And yeah, just life, life was awful for seven, eight years. And then I had a really good turning point. There's a, there's a happy ending to the story. I had a really good turning point, started to get better and wanted to be more involved with life. And as I was doing that, I was just like, what brought me so much happiness as a kid?

And that was being outdoors and our camping trips. And [00:05:00] I decided that I wanted to have more of that in my life. And so I started doing small camping trips in my Honda Element. I had no idea what I was doing whatsoever. Like, I think my first trip I had one of those cloth coolers and woke up in the middle of the night and water was all over the floor of my vehicle.

And so I, I learned some hard lessons that way. But and then the more I did these trips I've just I started to heal more, like it helped everything within my body with my shoulder and everything. And I just wanted to keep doing more of it and more of it. And then actually built my Honda Element with just the, you know, like cooler and a platform bed and everything.

And then in 20, 2019 had a rough year, but wanted to, you know, Get more of that outdoor stuff. And so I did a huge road trip to escape winter I took a leave of absence from my job took the Honda Element from Canada down to Southern, California [00:06:00] and Just bopped around until COVID shut the world down and I had to race home But that trip confirmed it for me that I wanted to do van life and at that point it still wasn't An idea to do it full time, but so I was just brainstorming, brainstorming was committed to getting a van.

My van came in my like early spring of 2021 and just as it came, I actually was laid off from my engineering job. So now the things that were tying me home were not really there. And so I just went full in and did it. You know, full time. And so I've been on the road, I guess coming up on three years here pretty soon.

Ayana: Wow. What were the hardest parts for you for starting van life? 

Lisa: I would say trying to haul all of my equipment. So I [00:07:00] have a lot of sports equipment or even just equipment adaptive equipment that helps me get around outside. And in nature a bit. That was the hardest part. So I, you know, started with building a bike rack that was on the outside of my Honda element.

And that was just, it was good, but I really wanted to make sure my equipment was kept safe and out of the elements. So then I knew I had to have some sort of storage inside. So that's, that's why the van has been great. I can keep my bike rack. I've got a mountain bike and travel with it and a surfboard.

And so I think that was the biggest obstacle was, you know, I still want those things with me, but but I haven't had any real issues just having a minimal, minimalistic lifestyle, I think. Going from the Honda Element. That came pretty naturally for you. Yeah, yeah, it was, it was so, it was started as I just want to be away from winter, and I don't care what I have to do to get away from winter, it's so hard to navigate snow when you use a wheelchair, and it gets down to, [00:08:00] yeah, and it gets down to minus 40 Celsius, so I didn't care what I had to give up to get away from winter, and then to transition from the Honda Element to the van life, it felt like luxury moving into a bigger space.

Nice. Nice. 

Ayana: Yeah, I'm, I don't want to use the word inspirational because maybe I don't want it to feel pejorative at all and I know that it can sound that way sometimes. Watching your van tour videos and the videos of you getting after it in nature and doing everything that heals your soul and creating solutions to problems that Most folks never have to think about is truly inspiring.

So thank you. Thank you for, for sharing your journey with us and with your YouTube audience. I was watching all your YouTube videos yesterday and yeah, thank you for sharing it at all. 

Lisa: Yeah, [00:09:00] it's my pleasure. And I get so much feedback from able bodied or people that have their own challenges. And it's.

It's definitely motivating me to be more forthcoming and put more out there about what I'm doing. 

Ayana: Yeah, one of the things that I was struck by you know, even like for myself and my husband, van life is just generally tricky. Like there are just more things you have to think about, water, places to park all of these additional layers of logistics and challenges with resources that We're not accustomed to thinking about in traditional homes. How are the day to day challenges for you as someone with mobility issues and maybe like what what advice do you have for folks who are maybe looking to get into it, but really worried about those kind of daily the daily grind aspect of van life 

Lisa: Yeah, so there are definitely challenges I'm planning a YouTube video where I talk about even doing a chore day and how to [00:10:00] Finding an accessible shower, or laundromat, or water fill station, and taking out the garbage.

It's been a lot of trial and error, but what has helped for me is actually going back to places I'm familiar with. And I can kind of make that my home base. So I, I seek out those places that are accessible, and I know where that, you know, that dumpster that I can reach is. And so, I always have that to fall back onto.

And then I can go do my exploring and, you know, maybe find more places, but I always know that I've got that thing or that place or whatever, where I can do those things. And so that would just be my advice is maybe start somewhere where you're comfortable and you know, That you're able to do those things in one area and then expand from there, and if you find that one, another area isn't good, you can always come back to where you, where you started out.

Ayana: Yeah, nice. I like that a lot, and it, yeah, it's true for us [00:11:00] as well. I think once you get the lay of the land somewhere, then it takes that mental load off of you a little bit of like, oh, okay, I can, free up time to like explore more and enjoy this place where because I'm not so concerned, where am I going to sleep?

Where am I going to get water? All of those, all of those things. Yeah. Yeah. So living in that element, I'm sure you also learned a lot about like what might work for you in a build and what's like definitely a no go in a build. Tell us about your van design process. Like, did you have a good idea of what you wanted when you started designing the van?

Did it kind of come as it, as you went, or? 

Lisa: Well, when I decided on the van, I said, I just want, number one, a bed that I don't have to assemble and disassemble every day. Yeah, I'm just the type of person that will never fiddle with stuff like that. And I wanted to get rid of a cooler and having soggy food.

That's all I cared about. And then maybe like being able to be inside a [00:12:00] space on a rainy day and still be in my wheelchair, not just in the driver's seat or in the bed. That was kind of, yeah, the downside of SUV life. But then when I was laid off and I got thinking that this would be a full time gig, then I started to add more comfort in like having a sink and, you know.

Full kitchen and all of those things. So it, it evolved from just having a bed and a fridge to having everything I need. I've even added a, you know, emergency bathroom and an indoor shower now that I can use because you just never know if you'll find one that's accessible around you. So, yeah, for sure.

Ayana: Yeah, it's funny. I feel like we did very similar things, starting with the basics of like, Oh, we don't need that much and then you start building and you're like, but wait, we could also have all of these things. And yeah, it gets, gets kind of cushy kind of fast sometimes. 

Lisa: Yeah, I think I went my first year and a half without [00:13:00] heat and hot water, and then I was like, you know, full time, I deserve it.

Let's add those things. 

Ayana: How has the hot water

been for you? Are you happy with it?

Lisa: I am, but I still only really use it to shower. If it's a really cold day, getting out of surfing, and then I'll turn it on. I don't use it for, I still just boil water for dishes and whatnot. 

Ayana: Totally. Totally. Yeah. That's one of the ones I'm wondering, like, would we use it if we had it?

And I, we haven't quite crossed that bridge yet, but, but we'll see. With your YouTube tour that came out on Tiny Home Tours a few years ago, there are still so many comments and questions coming in about the tour and about all of the accessible van products and designs that you've incorporated or that you researched and learned about while you were designing your build.

Tell us about a few of your must haves when it comes to accessibility and then if there are like companies, products, ways for people to, [00:14:00] to find those, we would love that information too. 

Lisa: Okay, where do I even start? I would say every question that comes my way, almost always involves about my wheelchair lift.

It's a different style of lift that I love because it, It's smaller, it's more compact, it doesn't block my doorway like a, most people are familiar with that platform lift that would just fold up and completely block the doorway and your visibility. So my lift is awesome that way. It's called a super arm lift and it lifts myself and my wheelchair right into the van and yeah, it's got a lot of positive features for that.

So it's, that's probably the top thing that I. Don't think I could ever go with the regular platform wheelchair lift. I think it would be a huge, huge step back for that. Other things? For me, if I'm on the road, and I don't have some means to access trails or more rugged terrain, [00:15:00] so I carry with me Something called a freewheel and that just attaches to the front of my wheelchair.

So if I'm in a Sandy or gravel Parking or camping spot. I can throw that on my wheelchair and it lifts those little front wheels off The ground are my wheelchair. So those usually are what stick in in the rougher terrain. So that's a big addition There's other brand names out there. But freewheel is probably most popular in North America And then my mountain bike too, that, that gets me so many places, so I, I would be pretty upset if I couldn't travel with that.

Ayana: Yeah, and then, cause you did, and we'll link it below, but you put out a video, it was just a couple days ago I think, going through kind of all of the accessibility features that you've added to the van and also the cost breakdown of those features. I am sure I'm [00:16:00] naive, but I was shocked at how expensive all of the additions are to increase accessibility for you.

And notice some of the other ones, like the pull down shelf and the steering adaptive kind of mechanism, both on the wheel and for the pedals. Those were all, or not the, the shelves weren't something you got from the dealer, but with the steering wheel and the pedals. You got that straight from the dealer.

You just ordered that with the van, is that right? 

Lisa: No, no, there's special companies out there. Mobility dealerships, I think they're called, so they would install a lift or the hand controls that allow me to drive. Yeah, Ford or, yeah, I'm in a Ford Transit. They actually gave you a little rebate. I think I got 500 back or something on my purchase of the vehicle because I was, showed a bill of receipt for having purchased items to adapt my vehicle.

So that, that's kind of [00:17:00] neat. Yeah, but they don't actually directly, 

Ayana: yeah, provide those. Install any of it. Okay, cool. Yeah, we'll make sure to list kind of all of these, all of these resources and tips and tricks for everyone because, yeah, as you know, looking at your YouTube video, many folks are interested and, and want to, want to find a way to make van life accessible and possible for them as well.

So what, and we've talked a little bit about this, but what resources have you found Most helpful when it comes to the day to day things like if you're looking for accessible trails or dumpsters, is there a place for you to to do research ahead of time? Or is it really a lot of trial and error? 

Lisa: There is an app out there called access now and I actually have been for the last three summers doing work for them I would go out and audit I, I don't, maybe I don't like the word audit, but I would go out and I would assess trails and [00:18:00] tell them if they're accessible and I provide like all the information, even whether there's benches and accessible bathrooms.

So that's, that's what the, you know, first thing that comes to mind. And it's all about accessibility with, with them. And they even have a different app that it's, I wish it was more popular, but. It's just like crowd information. So if people go to a restaurant and say it's accessible or it's not accessible, they just put that, that into the app and it's available for public knowledge.

And so it's a pretty powerful thing if more people used it for sure. So yeah, maybe more people will jump on board. But as far as, yeah, just with van life related things, there's not, I do use iOverlander a lot for, you know, water fill or. Or camp spots and things like that. And it would be, it's really helpful when people have included pictures because then I have a good idea.

Oh, there's the water spigot. Oh shoot. It's up a curb. I can't reach it. Or, Oh yeah, [00:19:00] it's completely level. I can make it there. So yeah. Tip to anybody that puts info in iOverlander, include some pictures or even inside a bathroom or shower. That's super, super 

Ayana: helpful. Yeah. Nice. What? Now being on the road for so long, what words of wisdom do you have for other folks with mobility issues who are looking to maybe do this themselves, if they're interested in it?

Yeah, what, what advice do you have? 

Lisa: It's just so basic and cliche, but I would say don't be afraid to try it. Just, just, I started out just doing small camping trips and you figure things out quickly. And if it's not the lifestyle for you. That's fine, but if you're enjoying it, but you still find some obstacles just keep at it and hey I'm always there to help people solve their [00:20:00] problems.

I love problem solving. It's part of my my brain and so I would just say yeah, just start out small and don't be afraid to Tackle those challenges and if you do come upon a challenge people are So wonderful and so want to help. So I've, you know, just here at the beach today I still cannot load or unload my surfboard by myself and I swear people are just so happy to help and I'm the same way as like if I can ever assist people I'm so happy to do it.

So if there are things that are holding people back It's there's absolutely no shame in asking for help if it will, you know get you on the road easier help you just get a task done easier and With less frustration, 

Ayana: so that's Yeah, for sure. Have you found the van life and nomadic community to be like, particularly helpful and open?

I feel like [00:21:00] one of the things we constantly hear on the podcast is like, I got into van life to get out into nature, and what I found are like, all of these amazing humans, and this network of community that's so supportive and wonderful. Has that been, yeah, the 

Lisa: same for you? Oh yeah, yeah, and Yeah, it's funny how everything intersects.

So I got, yeah, I wanted to get into nature, but I love mountain biking. I love surfing and guess what? A lot of van life people love those things too. So it's just like, yeah. And then you just multiply with the community and yeah, everyone has been so great. I think I have more friends on the road than even what I have back home, you know, where I lived for the majority of my life, but anywhere I go I can, I just have so many people I could call up and it's, it's really a great bonus.

Ayana: Yeah, and there's so much like common ground starting out when you build a relationship on the road. You know, we all have very, very different stories, but they all led us to [00:22:00] this point for a reason. And so I find when you even just start the like small talk conversation, there's just so much more like common ground with folks that I meet on the road, I feel like.

Yes, yeah.

Tell us where You're headed, like, do you have a sense of, everyone wants, like, always asks, like, oh, when is this over for you, but that's not really the way that I frame the question, I'm like, I'm not sure if this is ever over for us what do the next, what can you imagine the next year is looking like?

Do you have travel plans or, you know, are you planning any additional upgrades to the van, anything like that? 

Lisa: Upgrades, maybe just one small upgrade of moving my water heater to the back of the van and plumbing it to the sink. That's pretty minor, I might do that this summer, I might not, it works, but I always like a cleaner look when you don't have a water heater sitting under your sink.

But as far as [00:23:00] actual van life living and all that planning I can't see this ending anytime soon, even last summer I went back to Canada and I thought maybe I'd stay in my condo here or there and you know I spent 10 days in there throughout the entire summer and that was enough, I could not wait to get back on the road.

So, even just, I was house sitting over Christmas, I just could not stand being in a space that I couldn't just, you know, have the door open and fresh air coming in. So. I don't see van life or some sort of other off grid life ending anytime soon. Travel plans? That's Typically I spend like my winters, I take about a month traveling down to Southern California from Canada, and then I spend my 180 days down here, and then take my time heading up to Canada, and then bop around British Columbia, Western Canada, and then back to home where in the summers where I run an adaptive mountain bike club, so.

I don't [00:24:00] Imagine the next few summers we'll definitely be there running the mountain bike club, but maybe winters I'll finally get brave and dip down to Baja, but I love Southern California So it's it's hard to imagine not wanting to spend as much time here as as I can So the great thing with bed life is you can do it On the fly you can make a decision.

So we'll see for sure. 

Ayana: Yeah, cool. Cool Is there anything else for you that comes to mind around the conversation of mobility and van life? Anything else you would like to share with our listeners?

Lisa: Well, I did, I did make, as we talked about, I did just make a little YouTube video about the added expense. And having 25 percent extra was of my, you know, van and build was just making it accessible. There are organizations out there that might be able to help. I know there's the [00:25:00] Kelly Brush Foundation in the U. S. Back in Saskatchewan, there's TeleMiracle Foundation, which I'm so grateful they helped me out. But I would definitely, if anyone's finding that a significant barrier, that they could research some of that. And there's, I know there's other grants out there in the U. S. I'm just not as familiar with them because I'm not eligible.

But, yeah, I would definitely look into that or Or even crowdfunding. I know I've seen a few people get their lifts helped out with crowdfunding because I think everyone understands that it's, it's not fair that we have to have this disability tax and so if, yeah, people are, are willing to help out and yeah, I'm sure lots of people help out thinking that if they were ever in that situation, they'd be grateful for the help as well.

Ayana: Yeah, absolutely. I'll definitely link the grants and maybe poke around to do some research if I can find the names of, of a few other ones as well, because yeah, the cost is a concern for [00:26:00] anyone when they get on the road. And then having this, yeah, added disability tax, as you call it, is like, what a slap in the face.

Lisa: Yeah, it can be. Yeah. It's, it's funny how it's just become the norm for me at this point, but. Yeah, when I sit back and realize it's like, Oh, wow, I've put a lot of money into my sports equipment and making my home successful. And it really adds up when you sit down at the end of the day. 

Ayana: Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge, your experiences, your resources.

I'm really excited to share them with the tiny home tours community. Tell us a little bit about where we can find you online. So our listeners can follow your YouTube or follow you on Instagram. 

Lisa: My YouTube, which is just kind of getting off the ground people have been after me for years and I just was like, no, no, we can't have another van life YouTube channel.

I love them, but 

It is not just [00:27:00] another van life YouTube channel. That is not what this is. 

Well, I do find that everything I, everything in van life, you know, even if it's saturated, our YouTube world, I have to do it with a twist. It's all gonna be different. So, so there, yeah. Exactly. It's It's not just, yeah, it's a little different, so I'm excited to get that rolling.

So that's, that's Keepin It Wheel 306, and that is also my Instagram handle, so you can find me there, and I'd love you to join my journey with me. 

Ayana: Yeah, awesome. We're looking forward to more of your videos. As always, we'll link everything below and also your tour of your van so if people haven't had a chance to see it on the Tiny Home Tours channel, they can take a peek at that as well. 

Lisa: I think we're actually doing an update too, so that, that's gonna probably not air for a long time, but it's coming down the pipeline. 

Ayana: Stay tuned. And when it does air, I'll link it in the show notes as well so everyone can see. Lisa, [00:28:00] thank you so much for taking the time today to chat with me. It was wonderful. 

Lisa: All right. Thank you. Enjoy your day. 

Ayana: Yeah. All right, everyone. We'll see you back next week. Bye. 

Outro: This is a Tiny Home Tours production. Thank you so much for listening. Please don't forget to rate, review, and subscribe for all future episodes. We'll see you next week.