As moving around becomes more difficult and taxing, many people start using a wheelchair to make their lives that little bit more comfortable and convenient.
It could be that you need one for a short period, perhaps while recuperating from an illness or operation, or that you want one to use occasionally, maybe when you’re having an off-day or just want to get out and about more. Equally, you could be planning ahead and looking to your mobility needs longer term.
At one time most manual (non-powered) wheelchairs were loaned out by the NHS, but increasingly people are investing in their own wheelchair, choosing a model which is better suited to their needs. Specialist mobility retailers now stock a range of wheelchairs at various price points and will advise on their features, but here a few things to think about if you’re considering getting one:
- Self-propel or attendant-propel: Will you be moving the wheelchair yourself, or will someone push you along? Manual wheelchairs come in these two main types. Self-propel have larger rear wheels with rims fixed to them which you use to push the wheels around with your hands. If you’re not up to this and need someone to push you, then go for an attendant-propel model, which usually has smaller rear wheels. Most self-propel chairs can also be pushed by someone else, so this is the best choice if you’ll be doing a bit of both.
- Portability: If you’re going to be putting your wheelchair in a car you’ll need to think about how heavy and cumbersome it is. Modern wheelchair designs use lightweight but strong materials like aluminium and clever design means many can be folded up very compact. Many have ‘quick-detach’ wheels, again making them easier to transport. If you have limited storage at home, you might also look for a compact model.
- Wheels: Having decided to go for either a self-propel or attendant-propel chair, you’ll need to think about what type of tyres to have. Most self-propel chairs have pneumatic (air-filled) tyres like those on a bicycle. They give better shock absorption and a more comfortable ride, but they can puncture. Other wheels have solid rubber tyres, which are puncture-proof but give a slightly harder ride. Many chairs also have small ‘anti-tip wheels’ positioned at the rear and a few inches off the floor. These, as the name suggests, are designed to stop the wheelchair tipping over backwards and are a useful safety feature.
- Brakes: Most wheelchair brakes work on the rear tyres and can be applied gradually by either the user, the attendant or both (depending on the type of chair), or locked in place to keep the chair safe and secure while stationary. Just like bicycles, higher end models might have high-performance pneumatic disc brakes. Work out what you need, but don’t skimp on this – good brakes are an important safety feature. Remember, if someone will be pushing you, they will need the assurance of reliable brakes when descending steep hills or ramps.
- Footplates: Most wheelchairs come with footrests as standard. They almost always fold up or out for storage and transportation, or are completely removable. Most are adjustable to suit your leg length and some chairs have leg rests which can be raised if you need to elevate a leg, perhaps if wearing a plaster cast.
- Size: Manual wheelchairs come with different maximum user weights and seat widths to suit users of various sizes. The normal weight limit for standard chairs is around 18 stone, but heavier duty models (sometimes called ‘bariatric wheelchairs’) are also available for people who weigh more. It’s important not to exceed the maximum user weight as this will invalidate any warranty and be potentially dangerous. Many wheelchairs also offer different seat widths to suit a range of users. Again, it’s important to get the right one, especially if you’ll be sitting in the chair for some time. The backrest is another important aspect to consider. It needs to be the right height for you and some chairs offer extra lumbar support, helping you maintain a good posture.
- Armrests: These are essential for support while using a wheelchair, so it’s an important feature to consider. Many chairs have adjustable-height armrests to suit your body frame and some have easily detachable armrests, which is useful if you want to sit at a table or desk in your wheelchair. Different models have different types and levels of padding on the armrests, and some are straight while others curve.
- Appearance: The days when almost all wheelchairs were made from industrial steel tubing painted in drab battleship grey are long gone. Now manufacturers offer a range of attractive, colourful and appealing designs, enhanced by a selection of accessories and options such as shopping bags or cushions. It means you can choose a wheelchair which not only meets your needs, but suits your sense of style.
As with most things, the best way to choose the right wheelchair for you is to go and try a few out. Reputable mobility retailers will be happy to let you ‘test drive’ various types and models and give good advice on what to look for.