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Choosing a wheelchair

Learn about the differences between manual and electric wheelchairs, and how to customise yours to make it as comfortable as possible.
5 min read
In this article
The benefits of wheelchairs Types of wheelchairs available  Wheelchair features and accessories
Extra considerations for electric wheelchairs Getting a wheelchair for someone else Using a wheelchair around the home

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.

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.

However, 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 less easy 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 trickier than larger-wheeled chairs to mount obstacles such as kerbs.

Electric or powered wheelchairs

Sometimes called power or electric-assisted 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

These are some of the key features to consider when choosing a wheelchair. 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 customise 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.
  • 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.

Extra considerations for electric wheelchairs

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 and storage

Batteries are charged by mains electricity, so the wheelchair should generally be stored next to a socket for charging overnight. Some of the larger outdoor-type wheelchairs may need to be stored outside the home – in a garage, for example.

Getting a wheelchair for someone else

If you’re choosing a wheelchair for a family member, be aware that some people are reticent about the idea of using one – they may feel there is a stigma attached to being ‘a wheelchair user’ or being seen to need a mobility aid. 

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.

It’s possible to buy or hire a wheelchair privately, but most people in the UK get their equipment through the NHS wheelchair service. For more information, read our advice on how to get a wheelchair.

Using a wheelchair around the home

If you’re a new user, it’s likely that you’ll need to make some changes to your home to accommodate your wheelchair. Our article on using a wheelchair in and out of the home gives lots of practical advice on what to consider.

If you want to be able to get around independently, you may also be interested in the Which? Home & Garden guide to buying a mobility scooter.

Which? Home & garden
Which? can help you understand what to look for so you can buy the best scooter for your size, weight and lifestyle.

Further reading

Wheelchair hire

How to hire wheelchairs using schemes such as Motability, Shopmobility and the Disabled Living Foundation.

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: 29 Aug 2019