If you have recently been prescribed a power wheelchair, there are quite a few things to consider. There are many different options to choose between, and ensuring that you are provided with a chair that is right for you is important. The following blog post offers some ideas about options that you have when choosing a wheelchair. Speak to your Occupational or Physical Therapist and your wheelchair vendor if you have any questions regarding your wheelchair order. The following post contains some ideas of things to consider, but is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all options available.
The optimal location for the drive wheels on your chair will depend on a few things. Often, once someone gets used to a certain location of drive wheels, any other location might feel weird. Each type of chair has different pros and cons, so there is no one best location. Check out this website for a full comparison of the wheelchair drive trains.
Rear wheel drive
Pros: These chairs usually have the highest top speeds, and are very stable navigating rugged terrain.
Cons: The turning radius is higher in rear-wheel drive chairs, making navigation in tight spaces more difficult. Additionally, the concentration of mass at the back of the chair makes tipping on uphills more likely.
Front Wheel Drive
Pros: You will be able to turn your front end very quickly, making rounding tight corners easier! These chairs are also very stable, because they distribute the overall mass of the chair the most evenly. Additionally, you will be able to get close to workspaces or tables easily.
Cons: going uphill these chairs have a higher chance of losing traction, as if the mass is concentrated on the rear of the chair the front wheels will have less ability to grip. When turning corners in a front wheel drive chair it may be difficult to maintain awareness of the rear of the chair. This could result in hitting more things with the back of the chair if you aren’t careful! At top speeds, these chairs have also been known to be difficult to maintain control.
Mid Wheel Drive
Pros: These chairs are the most maneuverable of any chairs! You do not require any extra space to turn than that which you already have. They are also the most stable on a slope, because the mass is centered in the middle! Often, people find mid wheel drive chairs the easiest to drive.
Cons: They can get stuck in uneven terrain if the front and rear castors suspend the middle wheels.
You can operate your chair using a few different methods depending on your abilities and preferences. These are some of the most common control types:
- The most common control used is a hand-held joystick controller. These are controlled by using your hand to move the control arm in the direction you wish to go. Operation of these requires motor control of your hand and arm.
- Chin control uses a chin instead of a hand to control the joystick. The controller will be mounted near your face, and you will use your chin to move the control arm.
- A head array is a control that you can trigger with your head. Pushing your head towards the sensors on either side will turn the chair, and pushing your head backwards will make it move forwards. To reverse, a switch is activated and then you can push your head back on the head array.
- Sip and puff users control their wheelchairs via air blown into or sucked out of a straw-like controller. For example a hard puff may mean forwards, and a hard sip backwards. Soft sip and soft puff may correlate to a left or right turn. This control method requires practice to drive smoothly, as the output is not intuitive.
- Touchpads do not require much force, but do require steady control of the hand and arm. Sliding your hand along a controller panel will move the chair in that direction.
Lights can be added to wheelchairs when ordering, however this option is typically quite expensive and often not covered by public insurance. Lights are important to ensure safety when driving, especially in traffic. This blog post discusses the importance of visibility in a wheelchair to prevent injury. If you do not want to spend hundreds of dollars on lights from the wheelchair manufacturer, many people create DIY solutions, including attaching battery powered lights to the chair. If you aren’t able to create a solution yourself, organisations like the Tetra Society may be able to help you make a custom light solution.
Many power wheelchairs are able to tilt, recline, and seat elevate electronically. These features can be especially useful for people who are unable to adjust themselves in their seats. Being able to tilt back is an easy way for care attendants to help someone adjust back in their seat. Being able to recline is important if you are going to spend a lot of time in your chair as it will allow you to stretch your back out. Elevation will allow you to rise up to eye level with people who are standing, and is useful to reach high cabinets, and to reach counters at cashiers and coffee shops etc. These features may be funded depending on the need for them. Without funding, electric tilt, recline and elevate can cost thousands of dollars. Speak to your therapist about whether or not these features are right for you.
There are many different things that you can buy to add on to your wheelchair. Many of our blog posts discuss add-ons, including those that increase safety, increase rear visibility and are just cool features. One feature that you can add on that fits into all three of these categories is the Braze Sentina, which is a blind spot sensor system designed for use with wheelchairs. Learn more about the Braze Sentina here!
When you first bring your wheelchair home, you may find it difficult to know what the footprint of the chair is, and as a result there is a high chance that you will bump some walls and doorways in your home. This can be avoided using various visual aids, such as blind spot sensors to monitor the environment behind your wheelchair. Braze Mobility Inc. makes blind spot sensors that can be added to any wheelchair, and provide the user with 180 degrees of rear view blind spot coverage. More information about these systems can be found here.
I hope this blog post has given you an idea of some of the options available to you in selecting your new wheelchair. Your OT and/or PT and wheelchair vendor are there to answer all of your questions and support you in your selection. Make sure that you advocate for yourself, and know your options in order to ensure that the chair you get is right for you. Please comment below if there are any other features you think should be included!