How to choose the right wheelchair

Choosing the Right Wheelchair: A Mini-guide

Following a spinal cord injury (SCI), choosing a wheelchair that is suitable for the individual becomes a very important decision that has to be made.

Ideally, someone with an SCI will work with their occupational therapist to find just the right fit. It can take time but it’s worth putting in the effort and not settling for second best. 

Here we take a closer look at the wheelchair buying choices that a person with a spinal cord injury may need to make:

1. Manual vs Power Wheelchairs

The first thing to mention is that wheelchairs have improved dramatically over the last 50 or so years. In the past, they were heavy, difficult to manoeuvre and pretty inflexible. Today, we have modern, lightweight designs that can be folded away and quickly put in the back of a car.

The big choice someone has to make is whether they want a manual wheelchair, where the wheels are pushed, or a power chair that is driven by electricity. The latter is more suited to individuals such as those with tetraplegia, who are unable to use their arms or lack strength in this area.

Manual wheelchair
A manual wheelchair

Manual Wheelchairs:

  • These have benefited from major improvements in recent years with superior suspension which provide a smoother ride.
  • They come in rigid and foldable varieties. The benefit of folding wheelchairs is that they are portable and can easily be placed in the back of a car.
  • Modern manual chairs are also much easier to ‘drive’ and are generally very responsive once the user gets get the hang of things.
  • Just like bicycles, users can opt to modify their wheelchair by adding high-performance innovations such as better tires.
  • There are several variations for those with SCIs. For instance, some people have difficulty pushing the rims of the tires and there are now models that use levers that put less stress on the body.

The key to choosing the best wheelchair is to try it out beforehand and make sure it ticks all the boxes.

Power wheelchair
A power wheelchair

Power Wheelchairs:

  • The other option is to choose a wheelchair that has a motor and runs like a small scooter.
  • There are now a large range of different styles on the market including ones that look like a regular wheelchair as well as 3 and 4 wheel scooters with a seat and steering column above the power base.
  • The good news here is that there are different models for different needs. If the individual intends to go off-road into the country, they can opt for a power chair that suits their requirements with specially designed tires and suspension.
  • With all the benefits and facilities available with modern power chairs, it’s important to have the right expertise on hand. This is where occupational therapists can help with the decision process.

The one issue with power chair purchases is whether they are covered under Medicare. There is some choice limitation here and an individual may need to spend their own money if they really want the power chair they are looking for.

Batteries and Power Assist

The best wheelchair options need the individual to consider more than just how easy a particular product is to operate. For power chairs, battery life is an important consideration.

There are three different types for power chairs:

  • Lead acid batteries require the user to top them up every so often. They are higher maintenance but fairly cheap.
  • Gel batteries are more expensive but need less maintenance and have a longer life.
  • Absorbent glass mat batteries are similar to gel but a lot more expensive.

Power assist has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years and can be added to many modern wheelchairs. They act as a great halfway house between manual and power chairs.

While they add some weight to the chair, many spinal cord injury patients find them indispensable, especially when going uphill. Some new wheelchairs will have this included but there is also the option to add it on to many models when making the purchase of the chair.

Seating and Positioning

Another important thing to consider is the kind of seating available and the individual’s positioning on it. This will vary greatly depending on how someone uses their wheelchair.

A paraplegic wheelchair, for instance, may require special cushions to prevent pressure sores developing. Adjustable cushions that can change the user’s position are also a great advantage.

Someone who just uses their chair to get around outside and doesn’t spend all day in it, will probably need less in the way of seat cushioning and be less concerned about positioning.

Making the Right Choice

Probably the most important piece of equipment a person with a spinal cord injury will buy is their wheelchair. It’s important to take time over this choice and to do plenty of research. Picking the best wheelchair undoubtedly makes a huge difference to many aspects of life, improving access, comfort and wellbeing among other things.