What to Consider When Choosing Your Wheelchair?

Woman sits in a manual wheelchair.

I often get messages asking me about various aspects of being disabled, but by far the most common question I get asked is what should be considered when choosing a wheelchair. This question is so common, in fact, that I’ve decided to turn it into a blog post. So without further ado, here are ten questions you need to ask before you select the perfect chariot:

Why do you need a wheelchair? White text on a black backdrop, with a picture of a cartoon wheelchair to the left.

On the surface the answer to this question is obvious; it’s because you’re struggling to walk. However, the answer to this question is deceptively complex. You may be completely unable to use your legs, being unable to stand or walk at all, meaning you’re going to be using your wheelchair most of the time. This means you want something comfortable and good quality, that will last a long time. At the opposite end of the scale, you may only need to use a wheelchair occasionally during a particularly bad flare up, so a wheelchair that can be easily stored when not in use would be preferable. Alternatively, you might be able to stand or walk a little such as inside the house, but need to use the wheelchair to travel further than the garden gate, needing something that is both hard-wearing and able to be stored.

Can you propel yourself?

Propelling your own wheelchair takes a lot of energy and is tough on the upper-body; you use smaller muscles to propel the weight of both yourself and the wheelchair, so is naturally more tiring than walking. It is especially tough on slopes.

If you cannot propel your own wheelchair and will be using it regularly, your independence will suffer significantly in a manual wheelchair. You will be entirely dependent on having someone to push you everywhere you go, including to the bathroom. It is possible to buy motors that clip on to manual wheelchairs to assist propulsion, but these don’t last long and only provide assistance rather than an alternative mode of propulsion. If you are unable to self-propel and will be using it regularly, a powered wheelchair is recommended.

What size should your wheelchair be?

Your wheelchair needs to be big enough that you can comfortably sit in it, with a couple of extra centre-metres to spare on either side. Too small a wheelchair will cause discomfort and even pain after a few hours of use, and too large a wheelchair will make the wheels or control panel difficult to reach. In children and adolescents who are still growing, having adjustable foot pedals that can grow with them means that a wheelchair will last longer.

Manual wheelchairs tend to be smaller than their powered counterparts, simply being a frame and wheels. Powered wheelchairs include batteries, motors, wires, and a control panel, taking up more space and weighing more.

It’s also worth considering that size and manoeuvrability are closely related. Bigger wheelchairs are harder to store, but can actually have a tighter turning circle than small wheelchairs. Wheelchairs that turn on the spot are usually longer than their smaller counterparts which brings us onto the next question.

How many wheels should it have?

This question only really applies to powered wheelchairs. While most powered wheelchairs have the conventional four wheels, usually being rear wheel drive like most cars, some wheelchairs have six wheels. A six-wheeled chair has two, larger wheels directly beneath the seat which are connected to motors. There are then four, smaller wheels; two below the foot pedals, and two some distance behind the seat. This configuration allows the wheelchair to be turned on the spot, which is very useful if you’re in a compact environment with tight corridors and sharp turns. However, this significantly increases the length of the wheelchair, meaning it’s actually larger in terms of floor space taken up. A conventional four-wheeled chair has a wider turning circle but takes up less space overall, so is often easier to store or park.

How far will it need to take you?

As I’ve said before, propelling a manual wheelchair is hard work. If you’re travelling long distances, especially up and down steep slopes, you either need to be exceptionally physically fit or you need to consider the assistance of a motor.

If you can’t push yourself that far, however, you’re probably going to need a powered wheelchair, at which point you’re going to need to consider battery capacity. Smaller batteries reduce the size of the wheelchair but don’t last as long, whereas large batteries are cumbersome but don’t need to be charged as frequently. It’s also worth noting that the quoted battery-life of a powered wheelchair is usually far more than the actual performance you will get out of the wheelchair, as testing conditions are completely smooth and flat, with very light-weight people controlling the wheelchair. Battery life will also decrease with time, so you need to consider this when evaluating how long you need a battery to last. In general, I would recommend that the radius of battery life is at least ten miles.

Will it need to fold up?

Wheelchairs that fold up are much easier to store and transport, but the process of folding and unfolding a wheelchair can be time-consuming and energy-sapping. This is especially true in the case of powered wheelchairs, although many power chairs may not be able to fold up at all. If you have plenty of space to store it and rely on public transport rather than your own car, having a wheelchair that can fold up is not a priority.

What type of tyres do you want?

Currently on the market, there are two common kinds of tyres; solid and air-filled. Air-filled tyres are able to absorb some of the impact of bumps in the pavement, reducing the occurrence of painful jolts every time there is a pothole or bump. However, they are prone to puncture and are virtually impossible to replace; a punctured tyre can actually mean the chair a write-off and a new one should be purchased. With solid tyres there is basically no risk of puncture, but chances are you will feel every little bump. If the wheelchair has a good chassis with springs this is less of a problem, but the firmer the frame, the harder the bumps will be.

There are actually tyres currently under development that are a hybrid of the two, being made of solid rubber with tunnels and air pockets distributed throughout the solid. There is no risk of puncture, but the ride is significantly more comfortable. Hopefully, these will become increasingly common in the coming years.

Will you need to buy a separate cushion?

Some wheelchairs come with cushions built into the seat, but many wheelchairs have a seat similar to a camping chair, with canvas being used as the seat and back. Manual wheelchairs almost always lack built-in cushions, and many powered wheelchairs also lack this feature. In this case, you will want to buy at least one cushion to sit on, if not one for your back as well. It is recommended that instead of the common pillow-style you might get in a home décor store, you source a memory foam or sculpted cushion that will provide more support and be more comfortable for prolonged use. You can usually purchase these in the same store as the wheelchair, as you will need to make sure the cushion fits on the seat of the wheelchair.

What is your budget?

The cost of a wheelchair varies significantly, ranging from a few hundred pounds to tens of thousands. Brand new wheelchairs are often more expensive than second hand ones, but second-hand ones may break sooner than a new one. Powered wheelchairs are significantly pricier than manual ones, and the more special features they have such as reclining options, or the ability to rise to standing-height, the pricier they become. As such, funding your own wheelchair can be rather difficult, which brings me onto my next point.

Who will supply your wheelchair?

If you’re lucky, your healthcare provider will be able to provide a wheelchair. However, even if wheelchairs are available in this manner, the choice can be limited, the waiting lists are many months long, and there is a risk that the wheelchair will be recalled if a health professional deems it unnecessary for you to have one. Despite it allegedly being possible to receive a wheelchair on the NHS in the UK, I have never been able to succeed with this.

Alternatively, you may be able to receive funding for a wheelchair through charities or a government scheme such as PIP Mobility in the UK. Unfortunately, much like with healthcare providers, government schemes often provide limited, low-quality options that lack special features. They also usually mean going through a long and invasive process to be approved for disability benefits in the first place, before then applying for mobility aids, and a lack of mobility aids is often deemed to be an indicator of not being that disabled, making it harder to get the necessary benefits in the first place.

If you have the option to buy your own, you will most likely need to visit a mobility aid specialist, either in-store or online. It should not work this way, but the only way to gain access to new and high-quality products with the full range of all features is to buy your own.

***

The main decision when obtaining a wheelchair is whether you go for a powered or self-propelled unit. While the above questions will provide much more detail on finding the best wheelchair for you, if you want a quick place to start, the flow chart below should tell you what type of wheelchair is right for you;

Flow chart. Can you propel yourself? Yes = manual, self-propelled wheelchair. No = Do you want to be fully independent? No = manual, attendant propelled. Yes = Does it need to fold up? Often = Manual, attendant propelled. Rarely = Which is preferable, small size or small turning circle? Small size = powered wheelchair, 4 wheels. Turning circle = powered, 6 wheels.

If you’re in the market for a wheelchair, I hope this article has helped. I’ve used many different types of wheelchair over the past ten years, so have a lot of experience and know the importance of choosing the right wheelchair for you. Good luck!

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