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Safeguarding Wheelchair Users: Unveiling 3 Key Environmental Barriers that Impact the Safe Use of Wheelchairs


In this blog, you will learn how wheelchairs can enrich quality of life as you discover the three most common yet impactful environmental obstacles as well as ways to overcome them. From accessibility options, weather conditions, to population density, we break these factors down thoroughly in relation to mobility safety. Our goal of the Wheelchair Safety Series is to introduce a holistic perspective on how environments influence safety on wheels. This second article in the blog series sheds light on how the following environmental factors may interfere with the safe use of wheelchairs:

  • Accessibility
  • Weather
  • Traffic

Raising awareness about environmental hazards to wheelchair safety helps increase not just the safety of wheelchair users, but also the chance for the public to get involved. We hope that everyone can be a part of a more accessible and mindful shared environment.


The presence of accessibility-related environmental hazards can limit a wheelchair user’s ability to navigate their surroundings safely and independently, hindering their mobility and quality of life. Accessibility of public and private spaces is one major issue. Individual wheelchair users frequent public spaces such as parks, libraries, malls, theaters, healthcare facilities, and grocery stores. If a building has no ramps, elevators, appropriate clearance and size of doorways, and/or visible signs, it prevents wheelchair users from entering as well as impairs their ability to maneuver safely once inside.

Commonly seen challenges of navigating public spaces include and are not limited to maneuvering narrow aisles, backing up and into spaces with lots of traffic and/or fragile items, elevation changes between flooring, and having belongings (such as backpacks, oxygen tanks, or wiring from your adaptive and assistive technological devices) getting caught while maneuvering. 

A computer generated 2-dimensional mid-wheel drive black wheelchair with beige seating beside black text reading 'powered mobility device users' from Edwards and McCluskey, 2010 and Gavin and Dreschnack, 2015. Orange 20% statistic beside a computer generated icon of a red star with 6-points and yellow outline with black text reading 'experienced at least 1 major collision within the past year'. Blue 33% statistic beside a computer generated broken black rectangle with black text reading 'result in damage to mobility device'. Blue 11% statistic beside a computer generated icon of a light blue hospital outline with a red cross with black text reading 'result in hospitalization for injuries due to collision'. Black text reading 'cost of medical bill $25000-$75000 and duration of stay 4-8 weeks long'

Lack of Awareness Leads to Lack of Accessibility

Additionally, cracked or uneven paths, gravel surfaces, and rugged terrains can easily get the wheels stuck, leading to wheelchair accidents. At times, especially in busy cities, we constantly see parked cars or groups of people blocking sidewalk entrances and exits, forcing wheelchair users to take alternative routes that are potentially dangerous. Navigating on the sidewalk is especially a safety concern when curbs are involved. A common fear of wheelchair users is accidentally going over a curb and into oncoming traffic, as this could lead to catastrophic injuries. 

On the other side of the curbs, there are additional factors of risk such as changes in elevation and surface type (e.g., grass, mud, gravel). Tipping or falling into grassy patches can lead to the wheels getting stuck. An injury prevention journal presented a study highlighting wheelchair-related injuries by age. It suggested that over 100,000 injuries lead to ER visits one year. In which 65–80% of injuries related to tips and falls. As you can see, barriers above all deter wheelchair users from accessing and enjoying outdoor spaces, negatively impacting their safety, independence, confidence in their ability to maneuver a wheelchair, and quality of life.


  • Downloading apps that show accessibility rates of a particular location.
  • Additions to wheelchairs mentioned by Sunrise Medical, such as encoders, can help with safe steering of the wheelchair to ensure it stays on the path and direction it was intended to be on, regardless of the environmental hazards that come in the way.
  • If going to a new public place and you need more information about its accessibility, perhaps calling ahead or visiting their ‘contact us’ and/or ‘about us’ section on their website might help plan ahead for your visit. Look for signage that might prepare you about the accessibility of a place ahead of time, for example, parking lots.


In most regions where seasons changing is a yearly ritual, not many are aware of the various challenges that come with each of the four seasons. From summer, fall, winter, to spring, wheelchair users face plenty of seasonal challenges within their indoor and outdoor environments that demand more awareness and attention from the community.

To name a few, there are unclean pathways covered by fall leaves and/or snow. There may cracked terrain with water piled up inside. There are leaves, snow, and water that can hinder the driver’s view and/or depth perception, making it difficult to predict what they are driving themselves into and increasing the likelihood of a bad accident. During winter times, wheelchair users can bump into snow banks. They can easily scrape parts of their wheelchair, and even tip and fall, crashing into snow banks.

Weather changes may impact accessibility of public transportation for individuals using wheelchairs. Uncleared sidewalks near bus stops prevent wheelchair users from boarding the buses. This adds unnecessary cost and stress to wheelchair users just to get around. In places where weather conditions change often, timely maintenance of pathways is a challenge. Failure to do so forces wheelchair users to allocate more funds for alternative transportation such as uber and taxis just to avoid social isolation and carry out routine errands (read more on this topic at inaccessibility of public transportation).


  • Having access to cost-effective accessible taxi services such as Uber and Lyft. Torontonians can check out our blog on what to look out for when trying to book a ride on Accessible Transit in Toronto.
  • Looking for visible signage (‘an icy slope’ or ‘road curves ahead’ or ‘bridge ices over in winter’) to prepare you for safe navigation of your wheelchair can be helpful.
  • Keep up-to-date with wheelchair maintenance. Make sure you complete maintenance of all your assistive devices and your wheelchair ahead of weather changes. This way, your wheelchair, technology, and you, are all ready for safe wheelchair navigation and maneuverability.


Using a wheelchair in a busy environment with lots of cars and people can get hazardous for wheelchair users. Public spaces are generally louder during high traffic hours such as the beginning and end of the day. During those times especially, there are a lot of larger vehicles that tend to reduce visibility and accessibility for everyone, not just individuals who use wheelchairs. Examples include large transportation trucks, large school buses, large public transport buses, and emergency vehicles.

Awareness of surrounding areas is important not just for individuals who use wheelchairs, but the general public as well. Wheelchair users are more vulnerable to accidents in high traffic areas. Automobile drivers may not be paying attention to the road, especially in high traffic areas. This may lead to collisions with wheelchairs.

Let’s talk about what is beyond the typical traffic.

When we say traffic, we often think of cars, buses, and bikes. What we don’t realize is that traffic on the road is not the only concern. Foot traffic on sidewalks can be of concern as well. When there are a lot of people accessing public walkways, maneuvering a wheelchair gets challenging as the user has lot more things they must try to avoid bumping into. To add to that, others sharing public sidewalks need to be mindful of how much space they leave to wheelchair users when using devices such as scooters, strollers, and walkers.

On top of everything mentioned above, the less talked about concept of “sensory traffic” needs to addressed. Intensive vehicular and pedestrian traffic often come with overwhelming sounds and lights as well. Not only must wheelchair users navigate through weather and accessibility related environment factors, they must also do all this under the constant influences of surrounding sensory stimulations and distractions. A sudden sensory input can lead the individual to act abruptly braking out of panic or accelerating in a rush. The individual has to divide their attention between all three traffic types then, vehicular, pedestrian, and sensory: this attention required for long periods of time and to make decisions,  makes it even more difficult for individuals using wheelchairs to be socially active. 


  • You can increase your visibility to others by wearing bright colours, adding LEDs to your wheelchair and parts, hanging bright bags on your wheelchair if you use bags. Check out our blog on Wheelchair Safety Tips for more ideas.
  • Adding sensors, cameras, and mirrors to your wheelchair could warn you when there is a change in your immediate environment. For example, a sensor could notify you if someone drives, runs, or walks past you suddenly. Check out our blog on the Pros and Cons of Visual Aids.
  • Using a white cane could help improve depth perception during changes in elevation so you can prepare ahead of time when maneuvering your wheelchair.

At the end of this blog, we invite you to envision the potential opportunities out there for us to create a more inclusive and supportive environment!  Do check out our previous blog in this Safety Series that talks about the 3 technology-related factors impacting the safe use of wheelchairs: seating, programming and configurations, and drive controls.

References/Citations: Mortenson, W. B., Miller, W. C., & Hardy, T. (2009). Ready to roll? Wheelchair use in residential care. . Disability Health Research network: UBC Okanagan. Xiang, H., Chany, A. M., & Smith, G. A. (2006). Wheelchair related injuries treated in US emergency departments. Injury prevention : journal of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention, 12(1), 8–11. Retrieved from

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