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Choosing a wheelchair

Learn about the most important considerations when choosing a wheelchair, including whether to go manual or electric, and how to customise it to your needs.
7 min read
In this article
The benefits of wheelchairs First things to consider Types of wheelchairs available  Wheelchair features and accessories
What to look for in an electric wheelchair Folding wheelchairs How to get a wheelchair  Home adaptations for wheelchair users

The benefits of wheelchairs

If you have limited mobility, a wheelchair can vastly improve your quality of life by allowing you to continue to be active and do the things you enjoy. Choosing the right wheelchair can enable you to socialise and go out with friends and family.

First things to consider

If you think you could benefit from a wheelchair all or most of the time, ask a GP, physiotherapist or occupational therapist to refer you to your local wheelchair service for an assessment. They’ll advise if you need a wheelchair and if so, what type.

There are a number of factors to consider including your body type, skin condition, posture and strength. If you have a health condition that is likely to progress with time, it’s a good idea to take account of your possible future needs when choosing a wheelchair too. 

Types of wheelchairs available 

Wheelchairs can be divided into two main categories: manual wheelchairs (propelled by the user’s own strength); and powered or electric wheelchairs.

Wheelchairs of either type tend to be smaller than mobility scooters, and are often more manoeuvrable, so may allow better access into shops and other buildings. But if you want to find out if a mobility scooter would suit you better, read our guide to choosing a mobility scooter.

Manual wheelchairs

These are usually most suitable for people who:

  • require a wheelchair all or most of the time (indoors and/or outdoors) for mobility
  • can walk – perhaps with a walking stick or frame – but are unable to cope with longer distances, so use a manual wheelchair when out and about.

You’ll need sufficient strength and movement in your arms to use a self-propelled wheelchair. If you aren’t able to manage this, you would be more suited to an attendant-propelled wheelchair, designed to be pushed from behind by another person. It’s worth noting that most self-propelled wheelchairs will also have push-handles for times when extra help may be needed.

Self-propelled wheelchairs have larger back wheels, each with an outer ‘pushrim’ that you turn to control and propel the chair. These wheels make for a bulkier chair, which may be trickier to pack into the boot of a car. For this reason, if you’re choosing a self-propelled chair, look for one with quick-release wheels, now commonly available.

Attendant-propelled wheelchairs have smaller back wheels, so are often lighter and easier to transport. They are also easier to navigate and control for the person pushing, although they can prove more challenging than larger-wheeled chairs to mount obstacles such as kerbs.

Electric or powered wheelchairs

Sometimes called power, electric-assisted or motorised wheelchairs, this type would be ideal if you don’t have the strength or stamina to use a self-propelled wheelchair, but don’t want to rely on being pushed – or if you sometimes want to take longer journeys in your wheelchair.  

There are a wide variety of models available, best divided into three categories:

  • Indoor/portable: for use at home or in places with smooth, even flooring such as shopping centres or garden centres. Usually easy to fold for fitting in the boot of a car.
  • Outdoor: will have larger wheels for dealing with uneven terrain, as well as suspension to make the drive more comfortable. Can usually be used indoors, too, but their larger size may mean they won’t fit through some doorways.
  • Indoor/outdoor: designed to offer the best of both worlds. Will not be as light and portable as some models, nor as robust as others, but may provide a good balance of features.

Powered wheelchairs are either Class 2, meaning they can be used outside on pavements, or Class 3, for use on roads and pavements.

All are generally a lot heavier than manual wheelchairs because their frame has to be stronger in order to support the battery and motors. Bear this in mind when thinking about the ease of transporting a wheelchair.

She got this fantastic off-road electric wheelchair. It has three gears and she loves it!

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Wheelchair features and accessories

Wheelchairs can often be customised to suit the user. Wheelchair manufacturers tend to be more flexible than mobility scooter makers when it comes to customising their products. So there are several things you can often add, adjust or adapt to suit you.

  • Seats: often available in different lengths and widths, or a firmer seat can be custom built. Support or cushioning can be added to give more postural support.
  • Footplates and armrests: most wheelchairs have adjustable footplates and armrests to help you find a comfortable seating position.
  • Backrest: the height is usually fixed.
  • Headrest: can be bought as an optional extra.
  • Storage bags: there are a few different styles of these available for use with wheelchairs, although they’re generally not suitable for carrying large amounts of shopping.
  • Wheelchair cushions: these can provide support and relieve pressure for a more comfortable ride.
  • Protection against the elements: a range of wheelchair-specific items are available, such as waterproofs in various styles and leg warmers that cover the lower half of the body like a half-length sleeping bag. The Disabled Living Foundation (DLF) has information about special clothing for wheelchair users
  • Wheelchair power packs: it’s possible (and relatively easy) to attach a power pack to most manual wheelchairs. This might be useful if you use a self-propelled chair but need to take some of the strain out of manually pushing from time to time. Even if you do decide to add a power pack, you'll still be able to drive the chair manually when you want to.

What to look for in an electric wheelchair

There are some key factors to be aware of before choosing an electric wheelchair.

Drive controls

The most common type of ‘drive control’ on an electric wheelchair is a joystick mounted on one of the armrests. In theory, these are very simple, although they can sometimes prove difficult to learn. 

You may initially find the controls to be over- or under-sensitive, but it should be possible to have them adjusted to suit you. Some companies offer other types, such as handlebar-style drive controls (similar to a scooter’s, but smaller), which can be retro-fitted to existing chairs.

Batteries

Powered wheelchairs need to be charged regularly. Most wheelchair batteries can take up to 10 hours to charge and doing so overnight will mean the wheelchair is ready for use during the day.

Storage

Some of the larger outdoor-type wheelchairs may need to be stored outside the home – in a garage, for example. The wheelchair should be stored in a cool, dry and well-ventilated area while it’s charging. Check that you will have a suitable place to do this before acquiring the wheelchair. Bear in mind that it could be a safety hazard to keep it in the bedroom during the night.

Folding wheelchairs

If you’re looking for a wheelchair that is easy to transport, a folding wheelchair could be a good option. Both electric and manual folding and lightweight options are available. But do bear in mind that fixed frame chairs are more robust.

How to get a wheelchair 

There are three main ways to get a wheelchair: 

  • through the NHS
  • wheelchair rental schemes
  • or buy one yourself.

Read our article to find out which is the best option for you.

If you’re choosing a wheelchair for a family member, be aware that some people are reticent about the idea of using one. If you sense your loved one feels this way, discuss it with them and explain how a wheelchair could improve their quality of life. It may also help if you can arrange for them to trial a chair before committing to buying one.

Home adaptations for wheelchair users

If you’re a new user, you may need to make some changes to your home to make it wheelchair accessible. An occupational therapist (OT) can advise you on what adaptations might be necessary. 

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Adjusting doorways for wheelchairs

Doors and door frames can be awkward for wheelchair users, especially if they have to be approached at an angle. A suitable width is usually 800mm, but the wider the door width, the easier the access will be and 900mm–1,000mm would be considered ideal. Talk to a carpenter to see what your options are.

Installing a ramp in your home

You may benefit from having a permanent ramp installed outside for access purposes, but this is not always practical, and will depend on the property and your needs. You could consider a portable ramp, which is made of lighter materials and usually less expensive than permanent options.

Find out more about the different types of ramps available, how to fit them and where to buy them in our article on ramps for the home.

When to consider installing a lift

If your home is on more than one floor, a lift installation may be an option. The space requirements for a lift are usually significant, taking up space on each floor, so, again, it would be worth consulting an OT to see if this is a viable option.

Downstairs bathroom

If you live in a house with two or more floors, having a properly equipped downstairs bathroom (unless a lift can be installed) that can accommodate a wheelchair will be very important.

Find more guidance about these adaptations in our article on bathroom adaptations. 

 

Further reading

How to get a wheelchair

We explain the options for getting a wheelchair, from the NHS service and rental options to buying one privately.

Mobility scooters

Our guide to the different types of mobility scooter for the pavement and the road, and what to consider when buying.

Last updated: 26 Nov 2019