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A Guide to Choosing a Wheelchair: Learn Your Options

Updated on January 28, 2013
An unknown artist's rendition of Confucius in a wheelchair. Artwork from 1680. Reproduced in D.E. Mungello's "The Curious Land."
An unknown artist's rendition of Confucius in a wheelchair. Artwork from 1680. Reproduced in D.E. Mungello's "The Curious Land."

People have been using wheelchairs for thousands of years. Over time, the options have evolved from simple wooden chairs to include lightweight collapsible wheelchairs, motorized wheelchairs, wheelchairs for basketball and many other options. This article can help people choose the best wheelchairs for their unique needs and preferences.

What to Consider

Here are some criteria for you, your occupational therapist and your doctor to consider when choosing a wheelchair.

  • Your goals: Which wheelchair can best help you meet your goals? Wheelchairs today can support communication, sports participation and other goals in addition to everyday mobility.
  • Your health: A variety of health issues come into play when buying a wheelchair. For example, you might want accommodations to be made for your posture, your body size, seizures or bladder management.
  • Your environment: Sometimes people choose wheelchairs and then modify their living spaces accordingly. It’s easier to choose a wheelchair that readily fits into your existing environment. Measure your hallways and doorways before your shop.
  • Your budget: You’ll probably need to pay a portion of the wheelchair's cost.
  • Cars and airplane travel: Power wheelchairs tend to be most convenient for people who have vans. It can be difficult to move a heavy chair in and out of a vehicle. People who often fly might prefer lightweight manual or battery-powered wheelchairs that can be easily collapsed.
  • Caregiving: Power wheelchairs and push-assist wheelchairs can help make a caregiver’s job easier.

Basic Types of Wheelchairs

The following sections describe manual, push-assist and power wheelchairs.

Manual Wheelchairs

Manual wheelchairs are appropriate for many individuals with good upper-body strength and balance. Strong shoulders and arms are needed to propel the rear wheels. Eight major types of manual wheelchairs are available:

  • Standard wheelchairs have very limited adjustability and aren’t tailored to individuals. Hospitals often use standard wheelchairs as loaners. These are low-end wheelchairs and aren't recommended for private owners.

  • Standard hemi-wheelchairs are for people who want a relatively low seat height (17"- 18"). These chairs are chosen by people with short stature and by those who wish to propel the chair with their feet.
  • Lightweight wheelchairs are often chosen for light use around the home. They generally aren’t comfortable enough for more than two hours of daily use.
  • High strength lightweight wheelchairs are for people who use wheelchairs in the home for more than two hours per day. These are sturdier than standard lightweight wheelchairs. They’re also available in a greater variety of seat widths, depths and heights.
  • Ultralightweight wheelchairs are typically chosen by people with paraplegia and quadriplegia. These let people improve balance by adjusting the rear axle.
  • Heavy duty wheelchairs are for those who have severe spasticity or weigh more than 250 pounds.
  • Extra heavy duty wheelchairs are for people weighing more than 300 pounds.
  • Tilt-in-space wheelchairs let people tilt the chair frame by 45 degrees or more.

Manual Push-Assist Wheelchairs

Push-assist wheelchairs are for people who want manual chairs but need assistance moving them. Two types of push-assist wheelchairs are available:

  1. Battery powered push-assist: A battery with a sensor is attached to the rear wheels. When the user pushes, the battery kicks in.
  2. Two gear push-assist: The standard rear wheels are replaced with those that operate on two gears. The user can shift between gears to adjust the chair for different terrains.

Power Wheelchairs

Power Wheelchairs

Electric or power wheelchairs are generally used by individuals with limited upper body strength. These chairs are powered by batteries and have front, center and rear drive options. Each drive has different handling characteristics. Center drives have the tightest turning radiuses and are often preferred by people who primarily use their chairs indoors. Rear drives tend to be preferred for mainly outdoor use. Front drives are for those who spend equal amounts of time moving indoors and outside.

Power wheelchairs have several control types. Joysticks are most common. Some customized control devices include chin controls, head controls and mouthsticks. The different control types can accomplish the following:

  1. Tilt the seat frame to improve balance and change pressure points
  2. Recline the seat back for rest, pressure relief or to adjust a catheter
  3. Elevate the seat to improve reach or enable better eye contact
  4. Lift the user from a seated to a standing position to improve circulation, respiration and other functions

Some additional options include power leg rests, high speed motors, enhanced suspension and flat-free tires.

Special Interest Wheelchairs

Today's wheelchair users have many exciting customizable options. For example, you can purchase a wheelchair that helps you maximize your tennis game or speed along an outdoor trail. Top End is a leading wheelchair brand in this area.

To conclude, a wheelchair is obviously a major purchase. Before buying a new wheelchair, be sure to talk with any friends or relatives with wheelchairs and read plenty of wheelchair reviews. You can start with the wheelchair review video below. "RueToYou" shares lots of helpful information. At first her eyes are cut off the screen, but then she moves. Be patient; it's worth it :-).

YouTube Video: How to Choose a Wheelchair


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    • Nancy Owens profile image

      Nancy Owens 6 years ago from USA

      What valuable information, SantaCruze. Especially helpful for people who suddenly find themselves caring for a loved one who needs help to be mobile. Voted Up and useful.