Driving a road sweeper when he was 18 years old, Ryan Kruse never saw the train that slammed into his vehicle and turned him into a quadriplegic.
College and other plans for the future seemed out of reach for Kruse, who was paralyzed from his chest down that day 13 years ago.
But recently, Kruse, who is working on a second bachelor's degree at IUPUI, traveled to Georgia to celebrate his grandmother's 80th birthday.
With only limited use of his hands and arms, Kruse is able to drive a van modified by Ahnafield Corp. with custom controls and a dropped floor.
"The van allowed me to become more financially stable, more involved in the community, to get a college degree," Kruse said. "I can just get out and go if I want to."
Indianapolis-based Ahnafield Corp., which develops mobility products that are installed in vans and trucks for the disabled, was founded by Bruce Ahnafield about 35 yeas ago.
He got into the business to create products for patients of his mother, who worked as an occupational therapist at Methodist Hospital.
"I wanted to help the disabled," Ahnafield said, noticeably reluctant to take any credit for work that allows people like Kruse so much freedom.
"Then, things were pretty crude," he recalled. "Finding ways to help these people to get out and about were pretty limited."
Today, products range from a zero-effort steering wheel for those with limited use of their arms to voice-activated mechanisms that control many of the vehicle's functions for those with no use of hands, arms, legs or feet, or no limbs at all.
And each highly technical piece of machinery is built in triplicate, providing two backups.
The devices are numerous:
Ahnafield's "drive by wire" joystick allows a disabled person with use of one hand or limited motion the ability to accelerate, brake and steer.
A computerized control system operates accessory functions. The windows, heating and cooling system, the horn and even the starter are assigned a numbered button, which the disabled person can push with a mouth straw or a finger.
A customized foot pedal can be used by rocking the foot from heel to toe for low-effort acceleration and brake control.
And remote-controlled ramps, dropped floors and raised doors allow the disabled person easy access in and out of the vehicle.
The low-volume, customized work performed by Ahnafield Corp. is time-intensive and expensive, with some parts manufactured in other countries because U.S. companies either can't do the work or can't make it cost-effective.
Many companies don't find it worth their time to build just 10 custom-designed brake systems, Ahnafield said.
With parts and labor costly, the cost to those with disabilities is high as well, although many, like Kruse, receive government assistance. Kruse bought the van himself and Crossroads Rehabilitation Center, a not-for-profit, paid for the modifications.
Providing a voice
Attorney Greg Fehribach, 3-feet-11-inches tall and a life-long wheelchair user, has been a customer of Ahnafield's for 20 years. The company is currently installing an entire drive system, including a zeroeffort steering wheel, in his van.
The modifications do more than provide a means for Fehribach, Kruse and others with disabilities to get around.
"If you don't have transportation, you don't have any integration into the social fabric of your community," Fehribach said. "People with disabilities have often been rendered voiceless in society. If you can't get to a public meeting to raise concerns, if you're not part of the employment or political process, you can't be heard."
Ahnafield understands that, Fehribach said. "He's an artist, with his medium being technology."
With no formal education and only two years of electronics training from the Air Force, the 65-year-old man who started out building race cars is nowhere near retiring.
"I know which end of the screwdriver to use," Ahnafield said modestly. "I've just always been mechanically inclined like that, I guess."
In fact, Ahnafield, with half-built steering mechanisms, brake parts and unrecognizable mechanical gadgets on a work table in his office, is still the company's top technical designer.
His three sons work alongside him, plus about 15 other employees.
And just as technology has advanced, taking Ahnafield along for the ride, industry regulations have come about and changed as well.
In the beginning, Ahnafield said, a World War II veteran might have wanted hand controls to operate his van or a ramp to help him get in and out. Ahnafield built and installed the parts and off the person went.
Today, vehicles are inspected before and after the modification. People with disabilities receive special driver training, then are evaluated on their driving ability.
Industry standards today also have Ahnafield's stamp on them; he helped develop them.
Scott Armour, an independent evaluator, owns Assistive Driving Services, a firm that conducts vehicle and driver evaluations.
He's seen numerous vehicles modified by several companies and said Ahnafield is unique for its high-tech components and custom work.
It is one of only two companies in the country that make the "drive by wire" joystick, Armour said.
The 12-inch dropped floor is also unique to Ahnafield, Armour said. The work required to make such an adjustment-a complete gutting of the vehicle and reinstallation of everything from fuel lines to upholstery-is just not worth it to others.
"We're not really any smarter than anybody else," Ahnafield said. "We've just been doing it longer."
Helping Scott Jones
And the high-tech wave is still rolling.
Recently, Ahnafield designed and built the electronic steering, brake and throttle components for an autonomous vehicle for The Indy Robot Racing Team, a Carmelbased group of engineers and software developers led by entrepreneur Scott Jones. The robotic vehicle competed in qualifications for a national 150-mile desert race in response to a congressional mandate that one-third of all military vehicles be autonomous by 2015.
While the vehicle failed to complete the final run-though not due to a malfunction of Ahnafield's system-Ahnafield, who volunteered his time for the project, said the ramifications for personal use of the technology are limitless.
"Someday, that technology will benefit the disabled," he said.