by Mia Thomas, DPT
Getting a new wheelchair can be an anxiety-inducing event; the fear of not knowing what will be covered by insurance, receiving a wheelchair that maybe does not fit you perfectly, or receiving a chair that feels alien to you and makes it difficult to functionally negotiate your environments. Getting a chair that is not right for you can be a nightmare, but often a team that has effective communication and the know how to persuade insurance can make the operation move a little bit smoother. So, what kind of chair are you looking for?
On the move?
You may spend your days moving around town running errands, chasing after kids, playing sports, or working in a large arena – regardless of the activity, you are always moving and grooving. If this described your lifestyle you want to look for an ultra-lightweight or lightweight wheelchair. The frames of these chairs can weight as little as 9.3 lbs, which means much less that you have to push around and ultimately less strain on your shoulders.
Looking for a cheap ride?
A standard weight wheelchair is by far the most inexpensive model that can even be bought over the counter without a prescription or evaluation. This means it is easily accessible to all, but it can result in users purchasing wheelchairs that do not fit them well and can not be easily customized. These chairs also typically weight 38 pounds, which means a little more weight for the caregiver or patient to be hauling.
Folding or rigid frames?
The other decision you have when going through the process of getting a manual wheelchair is do you want a rigid frame or a folding one? Frames that fold can collapse to something more easily able to slide into a car, but when you propel this chair some of the energy you are using is lost in all the little joints that hold it together. Rigid frames do break down to allow one to more easily transport it, but regardless of how many parts you take off it will not get as compact as a folding frame; however, you may be ale to take the seat off as well as the wheels to make it more compact. Because this chair does not have as many joints, you also are not losing any energy as you propel yourself.
Negotiating rough terrain?
A front wheel drive wheelchair has a larger wheel towards the front of the chair, which gives the user more stability and allows them to negotiate rockier and more uneven surfaces. While it is better at negotiating uneven surfaces, it can lose traction when going uphill and move at a slower pace because of the weight being shifted to the front of the chair. These chairs are very compact and have a small turning radius around the front wheel, which may help when going through doorways. However, when making turns, especially on icy or wet surfaces, you may experience the rear wheels of your chair “fish tailing”.
The new normal
Center or mid wheel drive wheelchairs are the most popular now. They have the smallest turning radius, are the most compact, and are fairly intuitive to use. It does have some difficulty with negotiating rough terrain due to the front wheels being smaller and more able to catch on objects than front wheel drive chairs.
Need for speed?
Rear wheel drive chairs are typically easiest to learn and is most common among patients that have been using a wheelchair for a prolonged period as they were popular in the past. This is the fastest chair and may be helpful for those who need to quickly get between places; for example, a college student, who needs to rush from one end of campus to the other in a short period of time or someone who has to rush back and forth between opposite ends of a building or factory. While this chair moves at the fastest speed, it is much bulkier and has a much larger turning radius; thus, you will want to ensure you do not have any small living spaces that you would commonly have to negotiate.