Guide to Buying a Wheelchair

This guide is intended to help explain the features and factors to consider when buying a mainstream manual wheelchair.
There are numerous different types of wheelchair available, from the standard budget transit chairs to the complex custom built sports chairs. It is important that when you buy your wheelchair you take into consideration several different factors. Below is a description of what you need to understand before buying your wheelchair.

Factors to consider when buying a wheelchair

Self Propel or Attendant?

If you decide that you wish to propel yourself using the push rims on the outside of the wheels, then you need to look at a self propel wheelchair. Although these chairs are designed to be propelled by the wheelchair user, they are often chosen by people that would have no intention of propelling the chair themselves, and merely chose this chair due to the comfort of the ride given by the larger diameter rear wheels. Normally the chairs have handles at the rear for the attendant to push the chair, so both types of chair can be used regardless.

If you are not strong enough or capable to propel the chair yourself, then you may opt for a transit chair. These are denoted by the smaller diameter wheels at the rear of the chair. The smaller diameter rear wheels often make the chair more manoeuvrable, and make the chair easier to load into the boot of a car.

To be perfectly honest, it is entirely up to the end user what chair to go for. You can argue the facts either way, but the final decision is done by the end user that is going to use the chair on a day to day basis.

Frequency of use

The duration you intend to spend in the wheelchair will determine on which chair to chose. Wheelchairs range from the very comfortable chairs that you could spend the whole day in, to the lightweight transport chairs that you would simply use to transport you from your house to a car etc.

Overall weight

The overall weight of the wheelchair can vary from chair to chair. Some wheel chairs are made from steel, some from aluminium. Even exotic materials such as titanium or carbon fibre can be used, but these are normally reserved for the more specialist chairs.

The lighter the chair the easier it is to load into a car, and easier to push, but the lighter the chair, as a rule, the more it costs.

Another thing to bear in mind is that some chairs can dismantle for transport. Some chairs have quick release wheels that can be taken off at the press of a button, some have removable foot rests, and some have removable arm rests. Once all the removable parts are taken off the chair, it makes the chair even lighter.

Wheelchair features

Wheels

The wheels on a wheelchair can come in a variety of types. The bespoke wheels that have carbon fibre spokes are extremely light, but they are also very expensive. The majority of mainstream wheelchairs have either wheel rims with spokes, or the MAG type of wheel rims. The MAG type are a moulded plastic rim with fewer spokes.

The tyres come in two types, either pneumatic or solid rubber. The pneumatic tyres offer a little more comfort, but are prone to punctures. The solid tyres are puncture resistant, but offer a firmer ride.

Quite a lot of wheelchairs have quick release wheels at the rear of the chair. These have a button in the centre of the wheel rim that allows the rear wheel to be removed at the press of the button.

At the front of the wheelchair, the front castors swivel through 360 degrees to allow a change of direction when moving the chair. The front castors are of varying size and are normally made from solid material.

At the rear of the wheelchair, there are sometimes small wheels a few inches from the ground. These are called anti-tip wheels. These are to stop the chair from being able to tip over backwards when in use. They are useful to some, but a hindrance to others. They are normally removable and adjustable. They can hinder the angle that the chair can tip backwards when being tilted to climb a kerb for example. They can also get in the way sometimes for the person who is pushing the chair. However, it is recommended that you do not remove the anti-tip wheels for safetys sake.

Footrests

The footrests of a wheelchair can be either fixed or removable. Most footrests can also be adjusted for height to allow the user to set the chair in the most comfortable position. Some footrests have a calf strap attached with a Velcro fastening to aid removal, and some have heel straps on the footrests to stop your heel sliding off the back of the footrest. It is also possible to get elevating footrests to allow your legs to be extended out in front of you. These type generally have padded calf rests to take the weight of your legs.

Armrests

The armrests on a wheelchair are essential to aid with your balance in the chair. They allow you to rest your arms on the top of them for comfort, and they also help to maintain your core stability should you have loss of faculty in this area. Some arm rests are removable, where some will just tip up at 90 degrees. Some will tip and remove, and some are able to pivot out of the way around the back of the chair once tipped up. The benefit of these types of armrest are they help you when you wish to transfer in and out of the wheelchair, for example when using a transfer board.

Some arm rests are full length to allow the user to rest their arms fully on the arm rest, whereas some are only half length. The shorter arm rests are known as 'table top' arm rests. These are primarily for use where the wheelchair occupant would be sat at a table. It allows the user to get closer to the table for carrying out various tasks, e.g. eating or reading. This type of arm rest are quite popular. Also, some wheelchairs are supplied with height adjustable arm rests. Theseare popular for people who may have a thick pressure cushion which adds height to the seated position. In these cases, you can adjust the arm rest to a higher position to allow adequate support for the occupant.

Brakes

The brakes on a wheelchair are normally located just below the arm rests and within easy reach for most users. Some wheelchairs require the user to push the lever forwards, some require the user to pull the lever backwards. The brakes should always be applied if the chair is left unattended or if the passenger is transferring.

Some wheelchairs have brakes located near the push handles for the attendant to use. These brakes are very useful when travelling up or down a slope when an attendant is in control of the chair.

As the tyres wear on the wheelchair, the brakes become less efficient. The majority of wheelchair brakes have some form of adjustment to compensate for this. Consult your user manual for information on how to adjust your brakes.

Assessing the correct size

User weight

Most standard wheelchairs have a weight limit of around 18 stones. This weight should not be exceeded as the wheelchair will not have been designed to carry more weight and could become dangerous. Also, exceeding the maximum user weight will invalidate your warranty. If you weigh more than 18 stones, heavy duty wheelchairs are available.

Seat size

It is imperative that you choose a wheelchair that is the correct size for you. There are various sizes available, and wheelchairs can be supplied up to 24 inches wide!

The correct seat width should give you enough room to be sat in a comfortable position, but not too wide so you do not have the full support of the arm rests, and not too narrow so you feel 'wedged in' the chair. When assessing the correct size do not forget to take into account thicker wither clothing that you would wear when the weather gets cold. The most common wheelchair sizes are 16" and 18" but by far the 18" width chair is the most common size sold.

You also need to take into account the seat depth (from the base of your spine to the back of your knees) when selecting a wheelchair. If the seat is too short, then the thighs will not be correctly supported thus transferring more pressure to your bottom. If the seat is too long, it may cause irritation at the back of your knees, and cause you to sit in an incorrect position as your will be positioned too far forward in the chair. Most standard wheelchairs do not offer the option of different seat depths, this option is normally reserved for the more specialist wheelchairs.

Backrest height

The backrest height is normally a standard height, but again, like the seat depth, it can sometimes differ on the more specialist chairs.

Armrest height

The armrest should be positioned at a height to support your arms in a comfortable position. If they are too high, it will cause you to raise your shoulders. If they are not high enough, they will cause you to slouch to one side or the other. If you are using a wheelchair cushion, this also has to be taken into account when assessing the wheelchair sizes, as the cushion will raise the position that you are seated at. Some wheelchairs have the ability to alter the height of the arm rests, but this again is normally only available on the more specialist wheelchairs.

Wheelchair Accessories

Wheelchair cushions

There are many different types of cushion available for wheelchairs on the market today. They can range from simple foam cushions to specialist pressure relieving cushions, designed to relieve pressure sores.

There are three basic categories that wheelchair cushions fit into. They relate to how susceptible to pressure sores the patient is. The categories are low, medium and high risk. The high risk category are the gel or air based cushions, medium risk users should look for a memory foam or a memory foam & gel construction. The low risk users would generally look for a basic foam cushion.

If you feel you fit into the medium or high risk categories, it would be best to speak to a specialist adviser, as this is only a brief guide to cushions, and in those cases expert advice should be sought after.

Walking stick / Crutch holders

Stick holders for wheelchairs come in very handy. They can either fit to the rear of the wheelchair and stand perpendicular to the back of the wheelchair frame, fastening with a clip at the top by the push handles and a cup at the bottom near the wheel axle, or some have a canvas fastening to attach them to the arm rest.

Weather Protection

There are many different types of garment to help protect you from the adverse weather. The garments range from simple mac's to gore-tex garments that allow your skin to breathe but not allow moisture through. There are also fleece lined weather proof coats that incorporate leg protection to give you all round warmth.

There is a range of adult wheelchair clothing in our online shop as well as childrens wheelchair clothing

Storage Options

There are various different types of storage bags that can be attached to wheelchairs. Some bags fasten under the wheelchair, some fasten to the arm rest of the wheelchair, but the majority fasten to the back. Some are quite small, and only big enough to take a few small items, for example, your purse, keys, mobile telephone, but others are large enough to take your shopping, on a similar scale to a small rucksack.

There is a range of wheelchair bags in our online shop.