Elaine Wolfe was 18 when she broke her neck in a swimming accident.
The spinal cord injury meant she’d never walk again, and would have no use of her hands and only minimal use of her arms. What it didn’t mean is that she would never go to school, travel or lead an independent life.
Her husband, Jim Phillips, and their pre-teen and teenaged daughters can attest to this: Mom’s had her own wheels since the girls were born. Her most recent vehicle is the 2004 Chevrolet Suburban parked in their driveway.
What drives Elaine is her press-ahead spirit – with some help from her father.
Cliff and Elizabeth Wolfe have seven daughters, of whom Elaine and twin sister Laurie are the youngest. After the 1983 accident, they accepted that Elaine would be in a wheelchair for life. But they also recognized her need for normalcy, and this became the impetus for KVB Manufacturing, the mobility production company they started 16 years ago.
A self-declared tinkerer and inventor, Cliff wanted to provide his youthful daughter with a vehicle that appealed to her, one she would enjoy driving. He started with a 1988 Chevy Blazer that he equipped with hand controls and a power chair lift he patented as the Elaine Anne Wheelchair Lift System.
“It was the prototype,” Elaine said. “It drove without fail and is still running. I loved that Blazer and didn’t want to give it up, but with my girls getting older, we needed more space.”
With a large portion of spinal cord injuries occurring in young people, the Wolfes wanted to broaden the choices beyond the full-sized vans and minivans that are usually used.
“Those vehicles,” Elaine said, “are not exactly attracting males who want to go out four-wheel driving.”
KVB is the only company retrofitting four-wheel drive vehicles, pickup trucks and sport utilities. The lift goes into the driver’s side and doesn’t affect the rest of the vehicle.
A lift and hand controls can cost $54,000, and that’s in addition to the price of the vehicle. Options such as a joystick and voice controls can take the price significantly higher. Fortunately, insurance offsets some of these costs.
And there’s a new line ready to go into production. The Wolfe Scooter Lift, designed for the “personality mobility scooters” used by the elderly and people with disabilities, is a platform that enables the rider to load the scooter into a minivan quickly and efficiently. Like the Elaine Anne Lift, it’s a one-person operation.
Six people work at the KVB plant off Highway 43 in Smiths Falls, Ont. It takes upwards of three months to get a vehicle ready, but the new production manager, Wentworth Marshall, is confident output can increase to respond to burgeoning orders.
KVB has added lifts to 100 vehicles, all on the GMC platform, including a 3/4-ton Silverado pickup that a man in Montana ordered so he could add a fifth wheel and continue operating his ranch, and a stretch Suburban outfitted for a disabled king from the Middle East.
Ottawa Paraplegic Mike Nemesvary used a KVB-outfitted Blazer for his 40,455-kilometre Round the World Challenge in 2001.
More recently, KVB outfitted a Hummer H2 for a woman in her 20s who lost the use of her legs when a truck collided with her smaller car.
She loves her Hummer with the Elaine Anne Lift and told Elizabeth: “I’m one of the biggest things on the road. Nothing’s going to hit me now.”
There’s no putting a price on that kind of confidence.
With a light breeze creating swirls of dust in the drive, the Wolfes met with us and demonstrated the Elaine Anne Lift while Elaine, who works as a portrait artist when she’s not representing KB at trade shows and raising her family, described how her life changed forever with that invention.
Q: Were you a licensed driver before your accident?
A: Yes, but they take your licence away when you break your neck. The licence I have now says I need to use hand controls. It’s not as if I’m going to try to drive without them.
Q: From the prototypical Blazer, how did KVB grow into a company known around the world?
A: It started after dad developed this lift for me. I was living in residence at Carleton studying Mass Communications. When other disabled people saw it, they immediately asked: ‘Where did you get it from? I want one, too.’ So many people approached him and asked: ‘Please, please make me one.’
Q: Besides the actual lift, was there any other retrofit needed to ensure safe, comfortable driving?
A: Dad developed a back support and a headrest because, driving from a wheelchair, there’s no support for your upper back. If I’m in a collision, crash tests show that I’d break my back. From the headrest, I can activate the windshield wipers by hitting a switch with my head.
Q: This is such a specialty item. How do you advertise it?
A: Our main method is word-of-mouth advertising, but we sometimes place ads in magazines and we do trade shows for the disabled, like the one in Georgia, and we do the Toronto show and People in Motion. We’ve been doing this for 12 years.
Q: You’ve no doubt considered what your life would have been like without your father’s invention. Does this give you pause?
A: Often. With this vehicle, I can be spontaneous in going where I want, when I want, so it means that I am independent. It’s simply heaven.
SHANNON LEE MANNION, CanWest News Service