Buying a wheelchair can be a costly affair and there is also no such thing as one-size-fits-all thing. That’s why its important to consider a few things before buying any type of wheelchair, including shape and size of the body, lifestyle habits, medical condition, personal preferences and the terrain where a wheelchair is to be used.
We have already covered types of manual wheelchairs and types of power/motorized wheelchairs in detail so in the part 3 the focus is on important things to consider when buying a wheelchair. Some people need specialized equipment for physical conditions that allow very limited body mobility.
On the other hand, people looking for specialized sports wheelchairs might have different requirements altogether. The information given below is a general guide and we highly recommend consulting a professional for proper evaluation and need assessment.
Motorized vs. Manual Wheelchairs
Deciding between a manual or power wheelchair depends on a variety of factors, including the physical condition, personal preferences and distance to travel on a routine basis. Motorized wheelchairs are expensive and involve complex technologies. However, new does not always mean better in all situations, especially when it comes to wheelchairs.
Weak arms or fatigue related issues should not be the only deciding factors when choosing between the two types. On the other hand, if a person is able to propel a manual wheelchair, but needs to propel it uphill for 20 minutes a day might also want to consider a power wheelchair despite his/her ability to operate a manual wheelchair. Manual and motorized wheelchairs both have their pros and cons, which are important to consider before making the final decision.
Pros of Manual Wheelchairs
Propelled by the user by physically turning the wheels, manual wheelchairs are suitable for people with adequate upper-body strength and allow them to maintain it by regular exercising. These wheelchairs cost less, are lightweight and more portable than power wheelchairs. People who need a caretaker to propel their wheelchairs would want a wheelchair with handles at the rear.
- Help maintain the physical strength
- Cost less
- Lightweight and portable (compared to power wheelchairs)
- Ideal for short trips and/or short-term use
- Less maintenance
- Easier for the caretaker to lift the wheelchair up steps when needed
- Less maintenance, fewer moving parts
- No reliance on batteries
- Easier navigation in tight spaces
Cons of Manual Wheelchairs
The choice between manual and motorized wheelchairs is fairly straight forward for people who don’t have the upper-body strength and need someone else to propel a wheelchair. Some other cons of a manual wheelchair include:
- Not suitable for traveling long distances or up slopes
- Users cannot reach a good speed
- Manual wheelchairs can wear users out (e.g. shoulder wear)
- You may need a caretaker to push the user around at times
Pros of Motorized/Power Wheelchairs
Power wheelchairs work great for people who want to travel long distances without getting exhausted. Rear wheel drive chairs are suitable for users looking for speed, while front and mid wheel drives offer good turning circles. The biggest advantage of motorized wheelchairs is that the user does not need a helper/caretaker to move him/her around.
- Faster traveling
- Long distance traveling without getting worn out
- Faster, effortless uphill travel
- No requirement for upper body strength
- Quiet operation
- Comfortable and luxurious
- Different drivetrain options (FWD, RWD and MWD)
- Recline/tilt options for pressure relief
Cons of Power Wheelchairs
The biggest drawback of motorized wheelchairs is perhaps their high price. Not only are they significantly more expensive than manual wheelchairs, they also require more maintenance due to the involvement of complex electronics and more moving parts.
- Expensive repairs
- Bulkier, difficult to transport
- Require more maintenance
- Regular charging of batteries
- Complex electronics, sophisticated programming controls
- Not always covered by insurance
Frequency of Use
There is no point in spending a lot of money on power wheelchairs when you just need one for short-term rehabilitation. Similarly, people who travel a lot would want a transport wheelchair, which are easy to disassemble and move from one place to another. Motorized wheelchairs are more suitable for long-term mobility and provide more comfort.
Manual wheelchairs are not suitable if you have to travel long distances on a daily basis such as in the university campus. It becomes hard to concentrate on anything after propelling a manual wheelchair for half an hour because of the fatigue it causes.
Wheelchairs come with different types of tires. Wheels containing carbon fiber spokes are not only lighter, but also more durable than standard spokes. However, they cost a lot and are usually used in high-end wheelchairs. Pneumatic tires provide comfort and have the ability to absorb shocks, but don’t perform well on unpaved roads (puncture pretty easily). Solid rubber tires are less likely to puncture, but the ride is firmer.
You’d also find wheelchairs with anti-tip wheels, which are small wheels at the rear and only a few inches from the ground. These wheels prevent the chair from tipping over backwards, but can also be a hinderance to others and around tight corners.
Footrest and Armrest
Wheelchairs come with both fixed and removable/adjustable footrests. It’s better to have footrests that are adjustable for a more comfortable sitting position, while elevating footrests allow users to extend their legs and usually come with padded calf rests that take the leg weight.
Armrests not only allow users to rest their arms, but also help in balancing the wheelchair. Armrests can also be either fixed or removable/adjustable like footrests. Some wheelchairs come with armrests that pivot out of the way, making it easier to transfer in/out of the wheelchair. Full length armrests allow users to fully rest their arms, while half-length aka table top armrests are recommended for users who regularly work on a table.
The terrain of the area where you plan on using the wheelchair also matters a lot. Factors such as indoor vs outdoor use, bathroom spacing, doorway opening size and porch lift should be considered. Some wheelchairs handle hard terrains better than others. Mid-wheel drive wheelchairs are more suitable for rough terrains and are highly maneuverable, while rear-wheel drive wheelchairs provide more power and have better directional stability.
Weight, Body Build and Shape
While power wheelchairs can be customized according to individual build and body size, manual wheelchairs are usually not so customizable. That’s why users need to consider their weight, body shape and size when buying a manual wheelchair. Children and adults require different types of wheelchairs, whereas height and body weight also play an important role in the buying decision.
Standard or full-sized wheelchairs are suitable for most body types and heights, but large-sized or over weight individuals need heavy-duty wheelchairs with a reinforced frame. It’s can be dangerous to use a wheelchair that has less weight capacity, which would also invalidate the warranty in most cases.
Although wheelchairs are available with seats as wide as 24 inches, it’s not recommended to go for a bigger size than needed. The seat width should provide users with enough room without being so wide that the user is unable to use the arm rest.
Cushioning might not be of a paramount importance if you are considering a travel wheelchair, but it matters a lot if you are looking for a wheelchair you plan on using in the long term. Wheelchairs are available with different types of cushioning materials ranging from simple foam cushions to more expensive options such as pressure relieving cushions.
Patients suspectable to pressure sores can be categorized to low, medium and high risk. People falling into the high-risk category should look for air-based or gel cushioning, while memory foam works well for medium-risk users. Standard or foamy cushions are good enough for low risk users. A specialist can accurately access the condition and advise which type of cushioning to choose.
Lifestyle and Personal Preferences
Some people only need a wheelchair for transportation, while others might want one just for sitting. Individual lifestyle and personal preferences help decide what kind of chair someone needs. For example, if the primary purpose is to sit for long periods of time than a manual wheelchair with appropriate cushioning should work fine.
People who have to travel a lot in their wheelchairs should consider investing in a motorized wheelchair with high battery capacity. Personal preferences such as aesthetic play an important role when deciding between different wheelchairs and should also be considered in addition to core functionalities.
The Wrap Up
Here is the summary of questions you need to ask when searching for a wheelchair:
- What kind of a wheelchair does the insurance cover?
- Self-propel or caretaker/attendant
- Is the upper body strong enough to propel a manual wheelchair?
- Does the user have any fatigue related issues?
- What kind of cushioning is needed, long-term sitting or temporary rehabilitation?
- Is a wheelchair primarily needed for transportation or long-term sitting?
- The type of daily activities and travel distance
- Can the user perform weight shifts independently in a manual wheelchair?
- Is there any risk of skin breakdown? (powered seating helps prevent skin breakdown)
- Can the user move into a vehicle and load the wheelchair himself/herself?
- Can the user self-propel a wheelchair up the ramp?
- The terrain around the home
- Gravel vs. paved driveway
- Weight and height of the user
- Bathroom spacing, doorway opening
- Outdoor vs. indoor
- Front-wheel vs. Rear-wheel vs Mid-wheel drive
- Travel distance on a daily basis
- Does the user live in a hilly area or has to travel up/down slopes?
- Types of wheels, how much outdoor travel?
- Is weight/dimension of the chair an issue when transporting a wheelchair?
- Are oversized wheels and reinforced frame needed for rough terrains?
- Does the user have stronger feet than arms? For them hemi-height wheelchairs are more suitable
- Does the user also need to stand from time to time? Standing wheelchairs can address this concern
- What kind of controller type is suitable for the user e.g. head control, speech control and foot control?