Self-propelled wheelchairs look very different to traditional wheelchairs that are pushed by another person (these are called attendant-propelled wheelchairs). They have large rear wheels with push rims so that the occupant can reach back and grasp the wheel. By pushing the wheel forward using the strength in their arms, the occupant can propel the wheelchair forward and maneuver themselves to where they want to be. This provides independence and dignity for a wheelchair user although there are usually handles at the back just in case they need some help.
Self-propelled wheelchairs have allowed people with disabilities to travel independently on many modes of transport. Although as media reports from 2018 highlighted, this can go wrong when wheelchairs are left behind on transport. This story revealed how a paraplegic man dragged himself through the airport when his wheelchair was not delivered to the terminal building highlighting how important these chairs are in providing independence.
When choosing a wheelchair, you will have a choice of several sizes and it makes sense to pick a model that suits your stature and weight. However, there are a lot of other features to consider as well.
If you or a loved one are considering buying a self propelled wheelchair, here’s the top questions that you need to consider before making a choice.
How often will you use it?
Some people only use their wheelchair for certain outings such as shopping trips or hospital appointments but others are in use constantly. If you intend to use your wheelchair very frequently, you will need one that is more robust and durable. You will also need a higher level and comfort and possibly pressure relief.
The weight of the frame is also important. A heavy frame will take more effort to propel over long distances. Aluminum frames are both lightweight and durable but will cost more. If you use the wheelchair every day, this may be a sensible investment. Please bear in mind that exercise is still possible in wheelchairs and you should maintain a certain level of fitness.
Where will you store it?
Foldable wheelchairs are useful if you do not have much storage space. The footrests can usually be removed (they may have a quick-release mechanism) and the whole frame may collapse. Portability is an important feature if you intend to travel by car with the wheelchair in the boot.
Check that it will fit in your car when it is in the folded position. The rear wheels may also have a quick-release feature for easy storage and transportation.
What type of wheels do you prefer?
The rear wheels can be solid or they can be filled with air like a bicycle tire — these are called pneumatic tires. The main advantage of pneumatic tires is that they absorb some of the impact when you travel over bumps in the ground. This gives you a more comfortable ride. The disadvantage is that they can get punctures and these can be inconvenient to repair.
The front wheels will usually be solid and will rotate around 360 degrees so that you can change direction. You may want to consider a wheelchair with a third set of wheels. They are placed at the rear of the frame and are there to prevent tipping. Although these are a popular option for self propelled wheelchairs, they will stop you from being able to go up and down very steep hills. This is why many of them are height adjustable so that you can continue to tackle a steep incline when you wish to.
Which removable features would be useful?
Footplates are an important feature for both comfort and safety. They will normally swing outwards so that you can be safely transferred in and out of the wheelchair. If you need to elevate one of your legs, perhaps because you are in a cast, you could use a detachable elevated leg rest. It is also possible to get a padded extension that is shorter for amputees.
Armrests are essential to keep you safe when you are in the wheelchair but they must also be removable (or swing upwards) so that they will not impede your safe transfer. By removing the armrests, you also make the wheelchair lighter to transport.
Armrests can get in the way when you are sitting at a table and this can be frustrating. Look out for models that have cut away armrests. These are lower nearer the legs and so the wheelchair can be pushed under a table without difficulty. If you never sit at a table, you may prefer to stick with a traditional armrest which you may find more comfortable. There are some models that feature height-adjustable armrests. They can be very useful if your height in the wheelchair changes, for example, if you sometimes have to use a thicker cushion for pressure relief.