This isn't particularly new information, but might be helpful if you live in Massachussetts...

By Craig Fitzgerald, Globe Correspondent, 11/17/2001

n Sept. 20, 1998, Chad Sheperdson's life changed forever.

While trail riding on his Honda CR250 dirtbike near Onset Beach, his rear wheel struck a rock hidden beneath a branch. Traveling at 35 to 40 miles per hour, Sheperdson was thrown from his bike, head-first, onto the ground.

''I was conscious the whole time,'' he says. ''I told my friends to ride on ahead, but they all said no.'' Soon, he was on a MedFlight helicopter to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, headed down a trail he'd never anticipated.

Sheperdson suffered a devastating spinal cord injury, which at his first doctor's evaluation would leave him only able to turn his head and breathe on his own. Instead, he worked with physical and occupational therapists to regain some limited use of his arms. His intent was to drive again.

That's where his latest struggle begins.

Soon after his accident, Sheperdson's parents realized they needed some mode of transportation that fit his large frame and his sizable wheelchair and that would give him the opportunity to drive at a later date. The Sheperdsons visited a dealer specializing in conversions for the disabled and spent approximately $40,000 on a converted E-250 van, with the floor lowered approximately six inches and an undervehicle wheelchair lift. Problem solved.

Until Sheperdson found out he couldn't drive it.

While the van's floor dropped six inches to allow for his chair height, the floor gets progressively higher as it reaches the front, which his mother, Marcia, says leaves him staring out the windshield through the blue tint strip at the top, rather than through the center. Unfortunately, he couldn't be relicensed to drive the van that his family purchased because it hadn't been sufficiently customized to his specifications.

The Sheperdsons' next step was to purchase an unmodified van and get on a two-year waiting list with the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Council, which would not only put the custom work out for bid but also pay for all the work. Automotive Innovations in Bridgewater, one of a handful of vendors able to modify a van to such demanding specifications, won the bid.

In Jim Sanders's shop at Automotive Innovations, the floor of Sheperdson's van will be dropped approximately nine inches. In order to do this, the entire body of the van needs to be lifted. Sanders says for this kind of work, ''the full-size Ford van is the only game in town.''

Next comes the elaborate electronics. Sanders displays a Chrysler minivan currently being modified for another client, which features a panel that relocates the heating and air conditioning controls, along with a battery of square red buttons that perform every major function on the vehicle. Also included on the Chrysler is a Servo steering wheel, a small wheel that drops steering effort to nearly zero.

When Sheperdson's van is finished, he'll be required to undergo about 20 hours of behind-the-wheel training with a certified instructor such as Mark Whitehouse of Adaptive Driving Program Inc. in Dedham. Whitehouse's company provides adaptive driving instruction courses for Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

With all the custom equipment that will be included on Sheperdson's future ride, how does a person in his situation begin to learn what he needs to know? Sanders notes that a proper evaluation of the person's needs is essential. ''There are some firms out there that have claimed to `McDonaldize' the industry,'' says Sanders. ''I say, sure, when I go to McDonald's, it's quick, but I almost never get what I want and it usually leaves me with a sick feeling in my stomach later on.''

So where to start? General Motors and may have at least an introduction.

The Web site features a decision-making tool in partnership with General Motors that guides a van buyer through the process, asking a series of basic questions and providing recommendations along the way. GM's manager of mobility engineering Gary Talbot notes that at the end of the process, a GM van isn't necessarily the best fit. ''If we can lend our expertise, we're willing to make recommendations that meet the needs of the customer.''

Talbot notes that the market for these kinds of modifications is relatively small, and that historically, Chrysler minivans and full-size Ford vans have been the vehicles of choice in the modification industry. ''Chrysler was the first to market with a minivan, and the first to offer upfitters the opportunity to lower the floor.'' But the new line of GM minivans including the Chevy Venture, he says, offer the widest side-door opening in the industry, and one that was specifically designed to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Talbot notes, ''We found that a wider door opening that benefits the disabled is also better for everyone.''

Families that find themselves in situations like the Sheperdsons' need all the information they can get. The Abilities Expo at the Bayside Expo Center in Boston is a good chance to get immersed. The Abilities Expo includes representatives from state agencies and vendors not only for vehicles, but also for office and home modifications. The show, which opened yesterday, runs through tomorrow.

This story ran on page D1 of the

~See you at the SCIWire-used-to-be-paralyzed Reunion ~