- Profession: Singer-songwriter
- Age: 29
- Hometown: Toronto
- The car: 2006 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van
- Received Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in June 2012, in recognition of his music and philanthropic work
- Fourth album, Days to Recall, released in 2011
- Charity initiatives include The Justin Hines Foundation, “Just Inspired” campaign launched in South Africa; he has even repelled off a 33-storey building in his wheelchair to support children with disabilities
- Has appeared on CBS Sunday Morning and his own PBS special
- Concert tour including stops at Flato Markham Theatre in Markham, Ont., on Nov. 1, University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 10, and MCBN Fundraiser in Chatham, Ont., on Nov. 23
Justin Hines has excelled against all odds.
The singer-songwriter has Larsen Syndrome, a congenital joint condition that has confined him to a wheelchair his whole life. But it hasn’t stopped him from reaching for the stars.
He launched his music career at 14 when he won a competition to sing the Canadian and American national anthems at a Toronto Raptors game. Since then, Hines has performed at sold-out concerts around the globe as well as the Beijing and Vancouver Olympic Games.
His concert schedule is jam-packed, but he prefers driving rather than flying to get to his gigs. His wife, Savannah, takes the wheel of their modified 2006 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.
Why did you choose a Sprinter to revamp?
It’s not the common choice for somebody in my situation. Most people go with a minivan or something related to that.
Growing up, my parents had a minivan with the modifications, but we found it did a lot of harm to the actual mechanics because they have to go in and lower the floor and alter the mechanics, so the vehicle definitely has a life span.
For us, we knew that space was a big factor. We just figured the Sprinter is high enough we didn’t have to lower the floor. It’s used mainly for commercial purposes, but for us it’s a pretty cool option because we knew we were going to be on the road a lot. We wanted something big for loading a lot of gear around.
It works for us. It’s definitely an unorthodox version and people were wondering why I bought it, but in hindsight it was definitely the way to go.
The only thing that sucks is that we can’t really get underground and that complicates things at certain venues. It’s too tall for underground parking lots and drive-thrus. It’s a small price to pay – it’s really not that big of a deal anyway.
What modifications have you done to it?
On the side, we have a tri-fold ramp. Basically, it folds down and lowers, but then, when you fold it back up, it actually folds in half so you can still use that door as a door so everybody else can get in and out.
I just drive right in and the front seat actually spins around so I just pop into that and Bob’s your uncle.
On a minivan, it’s a lot more complicated. Sometimes the floor is angled and sometimes the actual front seat comes out and the wheelchair drives right in.
But I always wanted to sit in another chair other than my wheelchair, so that’s why I went with the swivel seat.
Do you have hand controls on the steering wheel, too?
No. I actually don’t drive. My wife does all the driving.
I didn’t need too many special modifications, just a really good ramp and a really good seat.
It’s less family-oriented, but definitely more rugged and durable.
For us, we tried to keep it as simple as we could without trying, no pun intended, to reinvent the wheel.
What was important to us was the vehicle itself would last a long time because we knew we were going to be driving it quite heavily. In one month alone, we put over 18,000 kilometres on it – that’s pretty intense. So longevity and durability was very important.
Were the modifications costly?
For sure. The Sprinter van alone is quite pricey. We knew going into it that it would be an investment on that end and a little less on the modification because we didn’t have to lower the floor. But the ramp itself was definitely up there. It’s in the tens of thousands of dollars just for that modification.
It can get really expensive, especially if you’re doing a complete overhaul of a minivan – you can pay $20,000 or $30,000. And it’s not a simple process, either.
Are you a side-seat driver – do you give your wife instructions while she’s driving?
No. I let her do her thing. She’s very confident and a very good driver.
Prior to this vehicle, I had never spent much time in the front seat. When I finally did get that opportunity, I have to admit it was a little freaky. Our van is high and, when you’re getting close to those semis at that height, it was quite unnerving for me. Once I got used to it, I was fine.
What was the first vehicle your family bought?
It was a Ford Camper van – a big, old brown camper van with a weird hydraulic lift in the back that was pretty sketchy from what I could recall.
We had tables in the middle – it was an elaborate setup.
And then we graduated to the minivans – the Windstars and Aerostars.
Do you notice the savings with the Sprinter’s diesel engine versus the gas engine in your old minivans?
For sure. Big time, actually.
It’s also convenient, too, because you have to fill up a lot less.
What do you listen to on the road – your own music?
No. Not very often. I really like modern-day and old-time singer-songwriters. My influences are James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Jim Croce – all these older singer songwriters.
How long do you plan to keep the Sprinter?
It’s six years old now and it’s starting to show its age.
We don’t want to see the old girl go, but we’re starting to think about the future. In the next year or two. we might have to have a backup plan. We’ve been pretty happy with the Sprinter so I think we’d look at it again.
And I just found out this year they’ve started to make vehicles that are pre-converted. There’s a car company that delivers them right out of the factory. A pre-modified vehicle would be kind of cool.
Do you have any advice for car companies when it comes to creating vehicles for the disabled?
It would be to remember that the vehicle is as much a safe place as it is a mode of transportation.
Things like aesthetics, comfort, and design are as important as functionality.
Hopefully, people in wheelchairs have a chance to enjoy the vehicles as much as the next person. I know functionality is super important, but ultimately being comfortable in a vehicle is just as important. I’m excited to see what’s ahead because I feel like they’re moving in that direction where things are aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. Up until now it has just been minivans for the most part. Now they’re starting to expand and offer more options. I hope that continues.
The interview has been edited and condensed.