Choosing a new wheelchair can feel a bit like buying a car – the only difference being, you already know what engine size you’re getting and what fuel it takes! In many other respects, however, there are a host of similarities… What sort of wheels should I go for? What sort of tyres? What sort of brakes? (Other than those on the end of your wrist when you go downhill, I mean!) What colour? What ‘optional extras’?
By Sophie Davis, Communications and Marketing Officer with Spinal Injuries Association
It really is quite a mineﬁeld and my ﬁrst advice to anyone would be the same as if you were buying a car. Take a look around you and see what others are ‘driving’, see what looks good and ask them how they ﬁnd it. Chat to other wheelchair users, particularly if you haven’t changed chairs for a while as there are bound to be innovations in the market that could make a real difference to you. There are plenty of other things to bear in mind as well, though.
Take a moment to think about your daily life: what do you want out of a chair and where do you want it to go? For example, do you want to be able to get it into your car? If that’s the case, think about the logistics of doing that. Many people ﬁ nd it preferable and easier to have a folding back to the chair (where the back simply folds down over the seat to take up less space in your car and make it easy to transfer the body of the chair into the car). What needs to be offset against that is that a rigid back (i.e. one that doesn’t fold down) is often considered more solidly put together. Having had both types, I can see the advantages of either and to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure which I’ll go for next time myself!
Then there’s the matter of wheels, tyres and push-rims. Unlike car wheels and tyres, these are a bit more personal and need careful consideration. Again, have a think about what you will be doing in your chair – as it ﬁ ts into your particular lifestyle. If you will be getting in and out of the car a few times, you might want to think about the number of spokes on the wheel as this can increase the weight and subsequently the strain on shoulders (albeit marginally) whilst lifting them in and out of the car. Naturally, any reduction in weight in the overall wheelchair will give less strain on the ‘engine’.
So what about tyres? I know many people get quite excited by those you see on cars but whilst they may look nice, as a driver, you never even see them and when you’re moving, no-one else can see them either. Wheelchair wheels and tyres are a bit different. With these, it’s much more handson: literally! The choice to be made here is between solid or pneumatic. The advantage of solid tyres, of course, is that they don’t puncture. The downside is that the ride is a lot ﬁ rmer. In terms of pneumatic tyres, there are a whole raft of different ones available, including some with Kevlar lining to provide a greater degree of puncture resistance.
So you’ve chosen your tyres, what about push-rims? Again, it’s very much a matter of personal choice and what ‘feels’ right. There are traditional metal push rims or some which have a strip of rubber over them to help improve grip. Obviously, with metal push-rims, you can buy rubber covers to go over the whole push-rim to improve grip in the wet and also prevent that cold ‘skin-onmetal’ sensation. Having said that, you can always buy pushing gloves to combat that effect as well.
Fit for purpose
Back to the main body of the chair, now. At certain times of the year in particular, paths are wet and mucky and pushing through them consequently means spray, muck and all sorts. For that reason, consider a clothes guard on the side. (The other advantage of these is that they also prevent your tyres catching on your clothes and causing damage.)
One of the other considerations to keep in mind is which footplate to select. If you have (or are thinking about getting) something like a FreeWheel to help push across cobbles, gravel and grass, you will need to make sure that your footplate can be used in conjunction with it.
There is, of course, so much more to discuss, such as construction materials for the frame and clothes guards, brake types and other optional extras and accessories let alone the matter of colour choice but that’s a whole new can of worms!
Best advice remains to take a look at as many different types of chair as you can. Go online and look at manufacturers’ websites, ask for brochures, go and visit their showrooms or trade shows. Think about what you want your chair to be able to do and what you will be getting up to in it.
My job at the Spinal Injuries Association means that I meet lots of different people in wheelchairs and I admit, I always sneak a peek at their chair to see what ideas I can store away for my next one!