Whether you’ve been a wheelchair user your whole life or you’re new to life on 4 wheels deciding which chair is best suited to you and your lifestyle can be a difficult decision to make. There are so many different factors that need to be taken into consideration, a few of which we are going to look at today so that hopefully we can make the job that little bit easier for you when it comes to buying your next wheelchair. As well, we will be looking at the different types of wheelchairs out there and why you might choose one over another.
What Are Your Wheelchair Requirements?
There are lots of questions you need to ask yourself before buying a wheelchair so that you can really make sure you are buying the best type for you.
If it helps, sit down with someone you trust and who knows you well and have a brainstorming session about your requirements. To help get you started, have a think about your answers to the following questions:
- Can you move or operate a wheelchair yourself or will you need someone to help do this for you?
- How often will you be using the wheelchair – do you need it when you’re at home or is it for just when you’re out and about?
- How much do you weigh?
- Do you need side access to move in and out of the wheelchair?
- Will you be using it on multi-terrain or just on pavements and roads?
- Do you need one or both of your legs elevated at all?
- Where will you store it when it’s not in use?
- Do you have any special requirements?
- Will you need to transport your wheelchair?
What Are The Different Types Of Wheelchairs?
Once you’ve worked out what you need, it’s time to look at what wheelchairs are out there. Most wheelchairs fall into two main categories self/assistant propelled or electric. However the variations on these are vast, as you will see below:
Rigid framed wheelchairs are ones that cannot fold up. They consist of a strong welded frame, which is usually made of either aluminium or titanium although you can also buy specialist ones with carbon fibre frames too. Despite these wheelchairs being unable to fold up entirely, the back of the chair will likely fold down and the wheels can be taken off if it needs to be transported or stored where there is limited space. However, if the wheelchair is being frequently used this may not be the most practical of solutions.
One big advantage of a rigid frame wheelchair is that there are less moving parts, making it stronger than a fold up frame as well as there being less chance of something going wrong. Maintenance costs are low and durability is high.
A rigid framed wheelchair has been designed to fit the body of the user, whereas the design of a fold up wheelchair is predominantly focused on the fact it can fold up for ease of transportation and storage. This means that a rigid framed wheelchair is likely to be more comfortable and is therefore better suited to someone who spends a lot of time in their wheelchair. The chair is generally more ergonomic and moulds to the shape of the body better, giving better support and therefore giving more confidence and freedom to the user.
If you require an assistant to push the wheelchair it is worth noting that rigid framed wheelchairs are usually much easier to push and likewise if you are propelling yourself it will make the task much easier. To make it even easier you can also opt for a lightweight rigid frame. These can weigh as little as 10lbs without the wheels and will be kinder on your shoulder joints – or those of your assistant for that matter!
Fold Up Frames
Please don’t be put off by what you have just read however, as fold up wheelchairs do come with their own set of benefits and it all boils down to your own personal requirements. As a general rule, folding wheelchairs are recommended for use up to four hours a day. This is mainly due to comfort factor, but also if it is being used on a daily basis for longer than this it will become damaged sooner and will need a higher degree of maintenance. Over time this will result in more money being paid out, when a rigid frame may have been the best option all along.
The main benefit of a fold up wheelchair is practicality. The entire wheelchair can be folded up, usually when a locking mechanism is released, which means it can be put in the boot of a car without having to faff around taking the wheels off. This type of wheelchair is best suited to ether the very old, who will only be using it when they leave the home for example to go shopping, visit the doctors etc., or people who have had an operation or broken a bone for example, and only need a wheelchair on a temporary basis.
Folding wheelchairs are made from aluminium or titanium and are generally heavier than rigid framed wheelchairs, however you can buy lighter models so always remember to check this on the technical spec before buying. Most wheelchair providers will allow you to try the wheelchair out before buying, so make sure you take full advantage of this service.
Self propelled wheelchairs are ones that are designed for users to move themselves without the aid of an assistant. They are built with a larger wheel at the back, which allows users to reach with their arms to push themselves in the direction they want to go. A high degree of upper body strength is required to be able to use a self propelled wheelchair and so it may not be the best option to start off with. However, some self propelled wheelchairs may also come with pushing handles at the back, giving the user the option of help should they need it. This type of wheelchair gives flexibility and freedom to its user, with the great benefit of being able to quickly change the direction of the wheelchair in social situations so that you can turn to talk to someone, move out of the way etc.
Attendant or assistant propelled wheelchairs are designed to be pushed by another person. These are also usually fold up wheelchairs and come fitted with brakes that are operated by the assistant pushing the chair rather than the user. They tend to have a smaller rear wheel and are more compact than self propelled wheelchairs and are usually lighter, so that they are easier to lift up over kerbs or doorsteps etc.
Power assisted chairs, or electric wheelchairs as you may know them as, are used by people who want the freedom of a self propelled chair yet still need some form of assistance. They are powered by either a battery or an electric motor and come equipped with easy to use joystick controls. For even more flexibility, you can buy power packs that can be fitted to a standard rigid frame wheelchair, giving the user the option of switching between the two. Great for when the user gets tired or if long distances have been covered. Wheelchair batteries are rechargeable and will last approximately 8 hours, but there will be some variation so make you check with the wheelchair provider before buying.
Sports and Active Use
And then there are the specialist wheelchairs that are designed for sports and active use. These are specially designed to be lightweight and therefore more easily manoeuvrable. It is presumed that the users of these chairs will have greater upper body strength and will be based on a rigid frame design. You can get hand bikes, all-terrain wheelchairs and sport specific wheelchairs that can be tailored to your needs, although it is worth noting that bespoke wheelchairs will of course come with a heftier price tag.
Always seek advice before buying a wheelchair, either from a reputable wheelchair provider or from your therapist if you have one. Hopefully this guide has helped explain some of the options available to you so that you can buy your next wheelchair with confidence.