Wheelchairs are widely available but choosing the right one – especially as a first-time user – can be overwhelming. There are many options with various features that can significantly impact accessibility, utility, and comfort. Whether you are looking for yourself or a loved one, it’s a good idea to understand the different wheelchair types, styles, and features before making a decision.
What to Consider When Choosing a Wheelchair
The primary function of a wheelchair is to increase mobility and comfort. To ensure choosing the best wheelchair, it’s essential to think about the user’s condition, special requirements, and daily activities. Will it be used occasionally or every day? Where will it be used most and how will it be transported?
What Are the Different Types of Wheelchairs?
Wheelchairs are designed in a variety of styles and sizes. When selecting one, take the user’s mobility requirements into account.
Self-propelled chairs are typically preferred by people who can get around on their own. They have large back wheels that allow the user to steer and push their own, but most are also equipped with handles on the back for pushing. Non-self propelled (or attendant-propelled) wheelchairs are ideal for people who do not have the ability to move themselves. These chairs have smaller rear wheels and require another person to push the chair.
Electric wheelchairs allow users the option of traveling further without tiring their arms out. They are preferred by people who are unable or are not strong enough to move themselves. Electric chairs tend to be bigger and heavier, so it’s important to think about access and storage when purchasing one.
Standard Manual Wheelchairs
Traditional, standard manual wheelchairs are the most common. They are durable, economical, and offer basic features. Manual wheelchairs can be either attendant-propelled or self-propelled.
Transport wheelchairs are most often used by people who don’t need to be in a wheelchair all the time or are traveling. These chairs are available in various sizes and weights, and they’re easy to dismantle, fold, and transport.
Some types of wheelchairs offer both the specialized features of a traditional wheelchair and the portability of a transfer chair. Medline’s Excel Hybrid wheelchair, for example, can be converted from regular to transport chair whenever necessary.
People who experience difficulty remaining in a seated position for extended periods of time can benefit from reclining wheelchairs. The backrest section of these chairs reclines back and the angle can easily be adjusted.
There are many other wheelchair styles available, including power chairs and scooters, lightweight wheelchairs, ultralight transport chairs, and extra-wide wheelchairs. Whichever type of wheelchair you choose, make sure the user fits comfortably.
How to Determine Proper Wheelchair Fit
When searching for a wheelchair, ensure a good fit for the user’s size and needs by considering all product features. An improper fit can cause hip problems, discomfort, pelvic problems, pressure sores, and bad posture. Keep the physical weight, height, and width of the equipment in mind. Wheelchair measurements are vital for everyday users to have a comfortable chair that meets all their needs and requirements.
Most models have a seat width between 16 and 20 inches. You can determine the proper width by measuring the user’s hips from one end to the other. To avoid pressure wounds, ensure that their hips aren’t touching the chair sides. The seat depth should be about one or two inches away from the back of the knee to help prevent blood vessel constrictions in the legs.
Consider the heights of the seat and back of the wheelchair. A full-length backrest with a headrest might be better suited for users with conditions that require back support. The height of the seat is also important for users who need to use their feet to move. The lower the seat, the easier it will be for the user to get in and out. Pay attention to the product’s weight limits and choose a wheelchair that can support them safely.
Wheelchairs are designed with either fixed or detachable armrests and leg rests. Full-length wheelchair armrests are typically recommended for people who frequently perform stand pivot transfers.
Desk-length armrests are better suited for people who work in an office. They are usually shorter than full-length armrests, allowing people to get closer to the edge of their table or desk. Armrest height varies, with some wheelchair models providing height-adjustable armrests.
Wheelchairs with elevating footrests are best suited for those are advised to elevate their legs (often due to edema, swelling, or injury). The length of the footrest is determined by measuring the distance from the back of the knee to the heel of the foot.
Some wheelchairs also feature an adjustable backrest. You can measure the back height from the person’s collarbone to the seat. Adjustable backrests are often useful for people who are above or below average height.
Common Materials Used in Wheelchairs
One of the basic characteristics that distinguish wheelchairs are the types of materials used. Steel, aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber are the most popular. While titanium and carbon fiber are generally more expensive, they are often used for specific activities (such as wheelchair racing and basketball).
Titanium is corrosion resistant and – along with aluminum – is primarily used in ultralight manual wheelchairs. Carbon fiber is more pliable than both steel and aluminum and is often used for wheelchairs that can support an active lifestyle.
Wheelchairs made from steel and aluminum are more affordable and suitable for everyday use.
Wheelchair accessories are great for people who spend long periods of time in a wheelchair. Accessories like wheelchair cushions, ramps, gloves, reachers, and lifters are created specifically to improve the user’s quality of life while providing comfort and convenience.
High-quality wheelchair gloves can make a world of difference for manual wheelchair users. They are designed to protect the hands from calluses and blisters caused by pushing a wheelchair. Wheelchair gloves are typically made from leather and come in a variety of styles, from fingerless to padded to full-finger cycle gloves.
Wheelchair cushions can keep users from developing pressure ulcers (sores) and bad posture. Seat pads are generally available in either foam, air, or liquid/gel form. Air flotation cushions (such as the ROHO models) are a popular choice to relieve pressure.