Choosing the Right Wheelchair for You: What You Should Know
Looking for the right wheelchair can seem a little overwhelming. There are so many from which to choose, and the wrong wheelchair can mean discomfort, unnecessary difficulty with mobility, and even potential issues around hygiene.
There are a few categories of wheelchairs, each designed to assist with certain functions in mind:
- Manual Chairs– These chairs are designed to be propelled by being pushed by hand. Its occupant can get around by using the wheel rims, or by a partner pushing with handles on the seatback. Manual chairs have come a long way in design and usability. They’re much more lightweight, more comfortable to push, and perform better at navigating varying terrain. Manual chairs come in a folding frame design, or rigid frame, each can be easily lifted to store in a car’s trunk, or wherever it needs to go, but some portable units can fit in more versatile places, like in the overhead bin of an airplane, for instance. Chairs have the option of a suspension system, which smooths out the ride but tends to add a couple of pounds and costs a bit more.
- Lever Driven Chairs- Allow the user less effort to push than a conventional wheelchair by replacing the quick-release rear wheels of manual wheelchairs. Many designs come with a choice of as many as five levels of effort.
- Power Chairs– If pushing isn’t an option, or a preference, power wheelchairs may be more appropriate. Many power chairs are rear-wheel drive, but front-wheel and mid-wheel drive models are available too. Powered by an electric motor and batteries and controlled by a joystick, power chairs come in several styles:
Traditional– basically a standard wheelchair with batteries, motor, and control systems. Keep in mind, these can add weight and bulk to the chair.
Platform-model – a chair with the power base underneath the seat instead of attached to the sides or back of the chair.
Power assist– Power assist chairs are a standard lightweight chair with a small motor attached either to the base of the chair or to the wheel units to provide a little boost of momentum to get the chair rolling. This feature saves the driver some physical discomfort in the form of shoulder soreness, or rotator cuff issues.
Geared wheelchairs– These wheelchairs have lower gears for hills or steep ramps when needed. With no batteries or motors, they cost considerably less than power-assist units and are more lightweight.
When selecting a power chair, it’s important to consider battery needs. It is so important to consider the life of the wheelchair’s battery when planning outings, especially those away from home where replacement/charging options may be limited. There are a few types of batteries available, and it’s essential to find out specifics from the manufacturer about what battery options are designed for their specific chair.
- Kids’ chairs
Kid’s chairs need to adjust and change as much as their growing bodies. Growing out of a wheelchair can prove to be expensive, so most insurance companies will cover adjustable chairs for kids. Kids chairs may be designed to look a little “cooler” than a standard medical chair, with specialized upholstery sporting some style, different frame colors, and streamlined designs.
- Standing Chairs
Standing chairs can act as a manual or power assist chair, but help support the rider to stand with a rising mechanism. This can be beneficial for many reasons- speaking eye to eye with others, standing for access to counters and cabinets, and reaching for high objects. They also shift body weight, improving circulation, range of motion, and reducing pressure sores and even for some, muscle spasms.
- Specialty Chairs
Specialty chairs, such as road racing chairs, chairs for playing basketball and tennis, and chairs designed for off-road use, are available for athletes. There are even chairs designed with wheels specially designed to navigate the beach.
Another thing to consider when purchasing a wheelchair is the wide variety of after-market accessories. For instance, customized wheels and tires are available to accommodate areas of rough terrain and off-road traction that need sturdier suspension. Custom wheelchair rims are also available for a myriad of needs. Rubber rims allow for comfort, lighter weight varieties, and stylized rims are just a few after-market options. Customized upholstery, visibility lighting, and basket options to carry groceries or items are also available.
Once the user has determined which kind of wheelchair best fits their needs, it’s time to get fitted for the chair. This usually requires help from an expert. OT’s or PT’s can help, as well as a knowledgable, reputable supplier. (Our staff at NCO are trained and ready to help get our customers outfitted with the right chair for them!) Ask around for advice and consult online chat boards. There are several forums online for people with varying levels of experience in the area of selecting a wheelchair who can help. A few things to consider when being fitted for a wheelchair:
- Seating and positioning
Often, wheelchair occupants live with issues such as paralysis. This condition can lead to health problems such as pressure sores or joint misalignment if not fitted appropriately with unique seating systems to relieve these issues. Cushion materials, such as gel, foam, or air may be better options for those with specific needs.
For those who only use a wheelchair for moderate mobility needs such as shopping or basic transport may not need specialized options for seating.
- Tilting and reclining features
These are also options to consider when fitting an appropriate wheelchair. These chairs increase extended sitting tolerance by distributing pressure, reducing the risk of skin sores, and increasing comfort. Also, features that elevate the legs and change the knee angle can help with circulation issues.
A quick note: It’s important to know your rights when it comes to your medical equipment reimbursement. Items like power chairs (which can cost as much as a fully-loaded car) should qualify for medical insurance coverage, including medicare. Be sure to learn your options thoroughly and, if needed, find an advocate for those with disabilities to negotiate for you.
When choosing a wheelchair, the best tool in your toolbox is knowledge. Read up, chat online, talk to your doctor/therapist, and consult a supplier who knows what they’re doing. Once you’re all set- get out there and enjoy the freedom of mobility tailored just for you!