Shopping for a Wheelchair

Selecting a new wheelchair can be a little bit like buying a new car these days, with so many chairs and options. Each should identify their unique needs:

• Physical needs
• Daily activities
• Transportation issues

Wheelchair Seats

Wheelchairs usually come with vinyl or nylon seats and backs. Neither is particularly comfortable for people who use their wheelchairs for hours at a time. Vinyl will stretch resulting in poor posture and, over time, even in permanent deformity. For this reason, it is recommended using commercial or custom inserts. These can help with both seating and positioning. The result is often better posture, increased comfort, and greater ease in performing daily tasks. When you are choosing a wheelchair, consider meeting with experienced professionals. These may include therapists, physicians, and wheelchair vendors. They can assist you in finding a wheelchair meeting your needs.

Standard, Upright Manual Wheelchairs

Typical users:

• May be able to propel the chair, or may need assistance
• Have mild to moderate motor involvement
• Have fair to good head and trunk control
• Sit quite well with little external support
• Walk, but need a wheelchair for long distances
• Use power wheelchairs as their primary mobility base


• Available in lightweight, heavy-duty, and high performance (sport) models
• May offer commercial positioning inserts
• Readily accept custom seating systems, lap trays, and communication mounts

Reclining Wheelchairs

Typical users:

• Poor head and trunk control
• Limitations in range of motion, especially hips
• Fluctuating muscle tone
• Pain or pressure while sitting
• Developing curvature of the spine (scoliosis or kyphosis)
• Limited ability to sit upright
• Weakness, lack of endurance
• Seizure or sleep disorders
• A need for custom contoured seating inserts, so the seat continues to fit well when the chair is tilted to relieve pressure


• Seat and back angle remain constant at up to 45 degrees tilt
• May be “growable,” with adjustable seats and backs
• May have vehicle restraint systems built into the frame, and have been crash tested
• May transport oxygen and ventilators
• Often readily accept custom seating systems, lap trays, and communication mounts
• Offer options for armrests, leg rests, foot plates, adjustable handle height, rear wheels, front casters, tires, anti-tip tubes

Power Wheelchairs

Typical users of wheelchairs with power bases are children and adults who want independent mobility. Advances in technology mean that a suitable controller or switches can be used even when a person has severe physical limitations. However, these chairs are powerful vehicles. It is important that their users have good judgment and maturity, to ensure the safety of themselves and others. Power chairs are now available in:

• Rear wheel drive. The power is behind the person, so that it feels as if the chair is being pushed from behind.
• Front wheel drive. The power is in front of the person so that if feels as if the chair is being pulled.
• Mid wheel drive. The power is under the person. This offers the smallest turn radius.

Power Wheelchairs

Power wheelchair technology is changing very rapidly. It is important to test drive a wheelchair and try out its controllers before buying the chair. If the chair will be used by a child, or by a person with a progressive condition, it is important to ask if it is “growable.” That is, can it be adapted to meet the person’s changing needs. Due to the size and weight of most scooters and power wheelchairs, transporting them usually requires a van with a ramp or lift. Not all insurance companies will pay for scooters; check with your insurance carrier.


Typical users:

• Have mild to moderate motor involvement
• Need minimal positioning
• Are able to walk, but need assistance when traveling long distances
• Have a wheelchair, but want a second mobility base for quick trips around town
• Features
• Lightweight
• Relatively easy to fold and transport
• Appearance more acceptable to some than a wheelchair
• May be less costly than a wheelchair
• May have positioning systems
• May have vehicle restraint system, and be crash tested

Final Comments

Selecting a wheelchair is a daunting task; but finding the right fit will make your life easier. Soon you’ll be able to partake in many different activities plus perhaps find new abilities you were unaware you had. Check thoroughly and discuss all options with other knowledgeable persons or your care attendant. The more heads together, the better you will be prepared to get the answers you need in making a decision. It is also noted it is recommended to purchase the new wheelchair approximately every five years.