Wheelchairs come in all manner of shapes, colours and designs. The choices seem endless but purchasing decisions are so important to think through. We’ve put together our quick guide to buying the best wheelchair for you.
From Able Magazine #110 (March/April 2014)
The cost of a new wheelchair can vary hugely. Whilst many wheelchairs are made to a standard spec, the numbers are still too low to make the market more competitive for disabled buyers and prices don’t look like dipping any time soon. The upside is that a well-chosen wheelchair can give back a great deal of worth, in terms of independence and even wellbeing. It’s an investment.
People use wheelchairs in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes – otherwise all wheelchairs would be exactly the same – and they aren’t. Not all wheelchair users, for example are ‘fulltime’ with some disabled people opting to intermittently use other mobility aids.
Away from traditional manual wheelchairs, other choices include powerchairs that are controlled by joystick and travel under their own power and transit chairs that are not for independent use but that carers use to take their charges from room to room and so on. Each has slightly different designs and spec and it’s just a matter of finding the best one for you.
How long you stay in your wheelchair and what you want to do with it are the two most crucial points for thought. If you are a fulltime user, you’ll probably want a wheelchair that either moves under its own power or that’s as light as you can get – to save your energy. Similarly, if you only want to use your wheelchair to get to the corner shop and back, it won’t need to have other features allowing you to feasibly travel further or do things like fold it up for transport and so on.
There are also other wheelchairs to consider that have very specific usage, for example, sports wheelchairs. These are made from specialist (usually strong but lightweight) materials but can cost a lot of money. Some of these wheelchairs are adjustable, enabling clubs to pass them around different members (or for kids who are still growing) but at the top end they are usually tailor made to very precise sizing details. (Sometimes there are grants or support available for people spotted on talent identification schemes.)
For most disabled people, the balance will be between cost and benefits. The one thing you’re going to need more than anything else is good advice; be that from your GP, OT or the experienced staff at reputable mobility aid shops. Recommendations from other disabled people are a good starting point as is an idea of the things that are going to be most important to get out of your purchase.
Different materials will be different in weight. Materials include carbon fibre, moulded plastic (mags) or traditional steel spokes. A large part of your decision making will be based on what you want your wheelchair to look like.
A handy thing to look for, especially if you fold up your wheelchair for car journeys etc, is a quick-release system. Pressing a button will allow you to take the wheels off without spanners or other tools.
Pneumatic tyres will give you a more comfortable and more efficient ride (assuming they are properly inflated). There is the small risk of puncture of course but solid rubber tyres are quite harsh and offer a poor ride by comparison.
The front wheels of a wheelchair are usually very small and made from solid rubber since pneumatic tyres would be difficult to control when mounting kerbs and so on – because they’re bouncy.
These are usually suspended a few inches above the ground and prevent the user from tipping over onto their back. This might be useful on a tennis or basketball wheelchair but they can get in the way if you’re being pushed by a carer or are trying to mount an obstacle (and can’t tip back far enough). Having said that; they are fitted for safety so you should think carefully about whether you need them. (They can usually be retro fitted or removed if you change your mind.
It’s sometimes useful to be able to remove footrests and armrests in order to store or transport a wheelchair but they should not be considered throwaway items. They are usually height adjustable for comfort and can also include an ankle strap to keep feet from slipping off or in a better position for your muscles to rest.
More important than they look, armrests can dictate much of the comfort and convenience of wheelchair use. Having armrests positioned at the right height will help to keep you in a position that benefits your respiration and skeletal alignment (stopping you from slouching) as well as secondary but important considerations including: helping you to transfer from your wheelchair and providing a comfortable place to rest your arms – as the term ‘armrest’ suggests. They can also be handy for other tasks such as writing and eating.
Brakes on a wheelchair don’t slow the chair down – that’s done by applying pressure to the push rims, but they do stop you from rolling away when you don’t want to or for ease of transfer etc. The brake is usually a clamp system that grips the tyre – another reason to keep your tyres in good condition. (Some brakes are located near the push handles for carers to operate.)
The standard limit for a wheelchair is approximately 18 stones. Exceeding this weight will not only be inefficient and dangerous but will also invalidate your warranty. (Wheelchairs requiring heavier loads are available.
The correct width of seat is really important and can have an impact on your posture (and therefore your ongoing wellbeing). You should have enough room to sit comfortably without needing the full support of your armrests but similarly should not feel squeezed. (You will need to consider how your ‘size’ will fluctuate when wearing thicker clothes etc.) The most common width of seat is 18 inches but sizes run from 16 to 24 inches.
The distance between the front of the seat and its base is also important. If it isn’t properly fitted, you run the risk of irritation behind your knees or extra pressure being applied through unsupported thighs to your backside – which can result in pressure sores. Adjustable seat depths are not always available with ‘off–the-peg’ wheelchairs.
These are generally of a standard height but are fairly easy to swap or pad for your comfort and specific needs.
Pressure sores can be very nasty indeed. One of the best ways of avoiding them is to invest in the correct cushion for you. These can be made from modern materials including memory foam or gel. It is sensible to take professional advice based on your own specific condition.