Wheelchair Buying Guide
This guide is intended to help explain the features and factors to consider when buying a mainstream manual wheelchair.
There are many different types of wheelchairs available, some of which are designed for users who have complex requirements and who need to spend significant periods of time in the chair. Advice on more specialist needs is available from your therapist or local wheelchair services who may also be able to recommend funding for this type of wheelchair. This guide is not intended to replace this specialist help.
Things to Consider
Things to Consider
Self Propel or Attendant PropelIf you intend to propel yourself in the chair using pushrims on the rear wheels, you will need to look at ‘self propelling’ wheelchairs with have large back wheels. Whilst these chairs are designed to be used by the chairs occupant, they normally have pushing handles on the back so that someone can push you where needed. Indeed, the larger back wheels can be an advantage when being pushed up kerbs or over other obstacles. If you are not strong enough to propel yourself and intend to rely on someone else pushing the chair, you are normally better off with an attendant propelled or transit wheelchair. These have smaller rear wheels and can be easier to manoeuvre for the person pushing. They also tend to be easier to put in to the boot of cars, although most wheelchairs now feature quick release wheels. They are no hard or fast rules about which type of chair to go for. If you think you may want to propel yourself even a little you would be better off going for a self propel wheelchair. This generally gives you the best of both worlds. However, this should be balanced against the increased width of the chair from the pushrims on the rear wheels.
Overall WeightThe weight of the wheelchair is obviously important if you are intending to transport it by car and it can also effect how difficult the chair is to push. The lighter the frame the easier it will be to lift and therefore to put in to the car. It will also be easier to push the occupant as there will be less weight and the chair will be more manoeuverable. Whatever the weight of the user, the lighter the chair, the easier it will be for the person pushing it. Whilst lightest is normally best, the cost of lightweight wheelchairs increases sharply. Most standard chairs are constructed with a steel frame. The more lightweight chairs are generally made from an aluminium frame which can cost considerably more. Another factor to bear in mind when thinking about weight, is the number of detachable parts to the wheelchair. Most wheelchairs have detachable footplates, but some also have removable arms and wheels. This can greatly reduce the weight of the chair when lifting making a steel frame an option.
StorageMost wheelchairs fold upwards by pulling up on the seat. This operates a scissor action folding mechanism, pulling the wheels together. Dependent on the specific type of wheelchair, a range of parts may also be detachable such as the footrest, arms and wheels. Typically the footrests have a quick release lever for easy removal. It may also be possible to fold down the back to half the normal height. Once all these part are removed, the wheelchair can normally be stored quite easily.
WheelsWheelchairs with large rear wheels are known as ‘Self-propelled’ wheelchairs as the user can self-propel themselves. The chairs with smaller rear wheels are called ‘Attendant Propelled’ or ‘Transit’ wheelchairs. In general, the larger the rear wheels, the lower the effort required to propel the wheelchair by the occupant. The rear wheels will either be pneumatic (air) tyres or solid rubber. Pneumatic tyres offer better shock absorption than solid ones but can of course puncture. Solid tyres have the benefit of being puncture proof but give the occupant a slightly harder ride. Many rear wheels have a quick release button, which enables them to be removed quickly. This aids transportation by reducing the overall size of the chair. The front castors normally have solid tyres, which will swivel a full 360 degrees. There can also be small wheels at the rear of the frame. These are called anti-tip wheels and are normally positioned a few inches from the floor. These wheels are there to stop the wheelchair tipping backwards and are a useful safety feature for self-propel wheelchairs. However, you need to be aware that the anti-tip wheels can be a bit of an impediment by restricting the gradient that you can climb. This may be frustrating where you have an assistant pushing you. For this reason, most anti-tip wheels are height adjustable and can be removed altogether if needed.
FootplatesThe majority of footrests swing away outwards or sometimes both outwards and inwards. Having swing away footplates is important for safe transfers allowing you to stand at the front of the chair without having to step over the footplates. Being able to remove the footplates altogether is also important for transporting the wheelchair as it reduces the overall size of the frame. It is possible to get elevating leg rests where you need to raise your legs for long periods or you may need to keep your leg straight due to a cast for example. You can also get shorter, padded extensions for stumps.
ArmrestsThe arms on a wheelchair are essential for support whilst seated. However, they can become an obstacle to transferring, particularly if you use a transfer board. For this reason, many wheelchairs have detachable armrests which can be removed to allow sideways transfers. This can also be of benefit when transporting the chair by making the frame lighter when removed. An alternative to detachable arms is to have swing up arms which pivot at the back. This has the advantage of not having to completely remove the arm and find somewhere to put it whilst transferring. Some chairs have armrests which swing up and are detachable giving you the best of both worlds. One other impediment that arms can be responsible for is preventing access to tables. The normal height of an armrest does not allow the user to sit up to a table as the arms hit the edge of the table. For this reason, designers have developed cut away armrests which are lower height nearer the legs and allow the wheelchair to be pushed further under the table. Of course, the trade off is that the occupant has a shorter armrest of useable height. Some of the more sophisticated wheelchairs incorporate height adjustable armrests. This is particularly useful where you need to use a pressure cushion in the wheelchair which may add several inches to your seated position. Without height adjustable armrests you might find that the arms do not provide adequate support.
BrakesThese will normally be manual brakes mounted near the rear tyres. These should always be applied when the wheelchair is stationery or if you are making a transfer. subitem image
Some attendant propelled chairs have brakes fitted near the pushing handles. This gives greater control to the attendant and can help slow the wheelchair when descending steep hills or ramps. The only drawback is that the user cannot apply the brakes themselves.