The electric-powered wheelchair was invented by George Klein who worked for the National Research Council of Canada, to assist injured veterans during World War II.

Three general styles of electric powered chairs (EPWs) exist: rear, center, front wheel driven or four wheel driven. Each style has particular handling characteristics. EPWs are also divided by seat type; some models resemble manual chairs, with a sling-style seat and frame, whereas others have ‘captain’s chair’ seating like that of an automobile. EPWs run the gamut from small and portable models, which can be folded or disassembled, to very large and heavy full-featured chairs (these are often called ‘rehab’ chairs).
EPWs may be designed specifically for indoor use, outdoor use, or both.

They are generally prescribed for persons who have difficulty using a manual chair due to arm, hand, shoulder or more general disabling conditions, and do not have the leg strength to propel a manual chair with their feet, a practice not generally recommended by most Health Professionals (HPs). They may also be issued to those with cardiovascular conditions. A person with full function of the arms and upper torso will generally be prescribed a manual chair, or find that their insurance will not cover an electric power wheelchair. People that can not get their insurance to cover an electric wheelchair or scooter are increasingly searching the internet for “Pricing for the uninsured” with the word wheelchair or scooter for large savings.


The user typically controls speed and direction by operating a joystick on a controller. Many other input devices can be used if the user lacks coordination or the use of the hands or fingers, such as chin controls and puff/sip scanners for those with C2-3 spinal cord lesions or head injuries (the user blows into a tube located near the mouth, which controls the movement of the chair). This controller is the most delicate and usually the most expensive part of the chair.

EPWs can offer various powered functions such as tilt, recline, leg elevation, seat elevation, and others useful or necessary to health and function.

EPWs use electric motors to move the wheels. They are usually powered by 4 or 5 amp deep-cycle rechargeable batteries, similar to those used to power outboard boat engines. These are available in wet or dry options; currently dry cell batteries are more popular. Many EPWs carry an on-board charger which can be plugged into a standard wall outlet; older or more portable models may have a separate charger unit.

Choosing a Seat Height

Seat height is the measurement from floor to seat. If the wheel chair seat is too low the user’s feet may drag. If the seat is too high, the user may have a difficult time exiting the wheel chair. To measure proper seat to floor height, have the user sit upright and measure the length from the heel to bend in knee. Add 1″ or 2″ for clearance & subtract the thickness of your cushion. Seat cushions are strongly recommended, especially for users who are likely to spend any significant amount of time in their wheel chair.

Choosing Armrests

Armrests provide arm and shoulder support. There are 4 types: “Fixed” or “Permanent”, Adjustable, Removable, and Flip-Back. Some armrests are a combination of types, such as Adjustable Removable armrests. “Fixed” or “Permanent “armrests cannot be adjusted or removed. Adjustable armrests, on the other hand, can be adjusted to different heights. Removable and Flip-Back armrests can be moved out of the user’s way to allow for easy transfer in and out of the wheel chair. Armrests also come in two lengths, Full Length and Desk Length. Desk Length armrests are shorter in length and allow the user to sit closer to a table or desk.

Choosing Footrests / Legrests

Footrests and Legrests are the two basic types of support for a wheel chair user’s legs. Legrests elevate and therefore include a Calf Pad. This enables a wheel chair user to raise or lower their legs and lock the legrests in a desired elevation. Footrests provide leg support in a seated position and do not elevate. Both are available in Swing-Away. These may be tucked out of the way from their position directly in front of the wheel chair. This allows for unobstructed access to and from the wheel chair seat.