Wheelchairs can be broadly categorized into two main categories i.e. manual and motorized. This post focuses on manual wheelchairs, which are suitable for people who can self-propel without requiring mechanical assistance. Motorized wheelchairs on the other hand provide partial or full propulsion assistance to people who are unable to move wheelchairs for themselves.
Manual wheelchairs come with different mechanisms, propulsion methods, technologies and form factors. Considering these aspects, user’s physical needs and how they intent to use them is important in choosing the right product so let’s start with some common types of manual wheelchairs.
The frame of a wheelchair defines its functionality and is a key factor to consider when buying any wheelchair. Steel being a strong material is widely used in wheelchair frames, while aluminum is also used to cut weight, allowing users to propel with less effort. Wheelchairs made using ultra-lightweight materials such as carbon, titanium and specific aluminum offer a great balance between durability and portability, but come at a premium price.
Rigid vs. Foldable Frame
Rigid/fixed and foldable frames are the two main types of frames used in wheelchairs. Each type has its own pros and cons so it comes down to user lifestyle, individual preferences and how they transfer in/out of transport.
Rigid frames are single-welded frames that incorporate either a foldable or fixed back-rest or wheels that can also support quick release mechanism for storage and easier transportation. A rigid frame means fewer moving parts, more structural strength and durability.
Folding frames are essentially X-Style frames and usually heavier than rigid frames. These frames can be folded for easier storage, take less space, are travel-friendly and tend to have removable foot-rests. However, more moving parts mean less durability than rigid frames which means more maintenance is required to keep the moving parts in good condition.
Another advantage a rigid frame has over folding frames is better energy efficiency. User’s energy efficiency to propel a rigid-frame wheelchair is a lot better than moving a foldable-frame wheelchair as some energy gets wasted in movements within the foldable structure.
Standard manual wheelchairs feature large rear wheels connected with a push rim that allows users to grip and propel the wheelchair. These wheelchairs are designed for people who are able to control their upper limbs to propel the wheelchair. Standard chairs usually come with a foldable design, allowing people to easily store them when traveling or not using a wheelchair.
As the name suggests, these transport wheelchairs are designed to move people from one place to another. However, instead of the person sitting on the wheelchair, transport wheelchairs are propelled by caretakers/assistants. These wheelchairs are mostly used at hospitals and other medical facilities. On average, these wheelchairs can accommodate a load of up to 300 lbs. / 135 kg and can be folded for storage.
Transport wheelchairs are also available in different variations including hybrid transport wheelchairs and wheelchairs for MRI. Hybrid wheelchairs usually come with a quick-release mechanism, allowing quick exchange/removal of rear wheels so people can exchange self-propulsion wheels (larger) with smaller wheels for transportation.
Wheelchairs used in MRI suites must be made of materials that are nonmagnetic such as PVC pipes. Most manufacturers label such chairs as MRI-safe and it’s not difficult to differentiate them from the rest because of prominent marketing and stamping.
Chairs weighing between 25 to 30 lbs. (10-13KG) are considered ultra-lightweight while under 40 lbs. are considered lightweight. These wheelchairs are designed for better portability so users can fold it and easily place inside a vehicle while traveling. Features of these chairs are fairly similar to standard wheelchairs i.e. large back wheels and grip to propel.
While steel is commonly used in standard wheelchairs, lightweight/ULW wheelchairs use aluminum or other materials such as titanium and carbon. Wheelchairs made using these materials can even weigh as low as 10 pounds (without the wheels). These wheelchairs are usually upholstered in nylon to cut weight, while ultralight ones might not come with a cushioned seat.
Choosing between standard and lightweight/ultralight wheelchairs comes down to intended use. UW/ULW wheelchairs are more portable, but generally don’t offer the same comfort level standard wheelchairs provide due to use of lighter materials. Many prefer using ultralightweight wheelchairs when traveling and standard wheelchairs at home.
Heavy or large users need something better than a standard wheelchair to accommodate increased weight/size. Bariatric or heavy-duty wheelchairs come with a sturdier frame and or wider-than-normal seats. These wheelchairs can support up to 700 lbs. / 320 KG and usually come with a recline mechanism to distribute user’s weight more easily and evenly.
These wheelchairs are purpose-built for children and come with a narrower, shallower seat and a small frame. Handles of these wheelchairs can be adjusted according to the height of adults propelling the chair. Essentially mini standard wheelchairs, pediatric wheelchairs share most features with standard ones while being more fun-looking and allowing kids to easily make adjustments.
These wheelchairs are more maneuverable and designed for people who want to enjoy sports such as rugby, basketball or off-pavement activities. Sports wheelchairs are activity-based and customized based on different sporting activities. Sports wheelchairs also require a certain level of skill to operate, which varies by the sporting activity.
These wheelchairs are quite different than standard wheelchairs and have evolved to address very specific needs. Some common characteristics of these wheelchairs include rigid frames, use of lightweight materials, a pronounced negative camber and different seating positions such as a kneeling position in racing wheelchairs.
Common types of sports wheelchairs include:
Multi-sport Wheelchairs and Handcycles
These wheelchairs are more affordable than sports-specific wheelchairs and are designed for a wider audience. Features like an adjustable backrest, quick release wheels, angled wheels and adjustable back wheels make them suitable for a variety of light sporting activities.
Handcycles are essentially tricycles or arm-powered bikes and suitable for exercise or just cruising around. Handcycles are also available in both manual and motorized variants with the steerable front wheel being the common denominator.
Oversized wheels and specialized features such as reinforced frames and beefy suspension makes all-terrain wheelchairs the favorite option of people who love outdoors and an adventurous life. These wheelchairs are available in manual as well as motorized variants, but buying a motorized version makes more sense when it comes to rough terrains.
Hemi Height Wheelchairs
These wheelchairs are intended for people who can use their feet better than their arms to propel the wheelchair. A lower seat-height allows them to propel the wheelchair using their feet, while dual axle allows them to easily raise it to the required height i.e. standard or hemi height.
Tilt/Recliner or Positioning Wheelchairs
Recliner wheelchairs allow caregivers to adjust or tilt the wheelchair for a more comfortable sitting position. A taller backrest and recliner mechanism differentiate these wheelchairs from standard wheelchairs.
As the name suggests, these wheelchairs are designed to help users get up. A standing wheelchair ‘stands’ as a user stands, allowing him/her to change position and face everyone on an eye-to-eye level. Benefits of using a standing wheelchair includes the ability to reach up, but these chairs cost a lot, are heavier and involve complex technology, which means more moving parts, expensive repairs and chances of things going wrong.
Although one can also take most types of wheelchairs to the beach, beach wheelchairs are purpose-built and make it easier to move through the loose granular surface of sand. It allows users to enjoy waves and cruising on sand. What differentiates these wheelchairs from standard ones are the big balloon-shaped tires that don’t get stuck in sand and can move without much friction.
Although the list of different wheelchairs mentioned above is not exhaustive, it still provides a fair idea of what to expect from different types of wheelchairs. The main purpose of all manual wheelchairs is to enable people with impairments/disabilities to easily move around, but not all wheelchairs are created the same.
That’s why its important to understand the differences between various types and functionalities of wheelchairs, which can help find the one that works the best according to individual needs. No single wheelchair can satisfy the needs of all users and in the end, it comes down to individual preferences and lifestyle, the type of disability and mobility requirements.