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Choosing a Wheelchair

by Gary Karp,
Issues to consider, information to have at the ready when you are choosing a wheelchair.

It is very important to get as close as you can to the optimal chair for you when you make your selection. You could wait years before your financial source is willing to buy another. Funders often won't pay even for minor changes like different tires or additional wheelchair accessories like a knapsack or crutch holder once you accept delivery of your chair.

No matter how skilled and knowledgeable your therapist or other advisor is, you are the expert on you. It is in your best interest to take an active role in the selection of your wheelchair, to learn as much as you can, and to take your time before making the final choice.

Chances are you know other chair users, possibly from your rehab experience, support groups, participation in athletics, or your local independent living center. Chair users tend to be very opinionated about their choices. Remember that every person is different. You can learn much from what others say, but what works best for them might not work for you. What counts is to get your own education.

My experience with purchasing the best chair for me came primarily from my own research which included talking with other wheelchair users. I got a couple of names from the retailer, but the best information I got was from the Internet.

Learn as much as possible about chairs and what is available on the market. You can request product information from all companies that appear to have something you think might work for you.

Consider The Issues

Your wheelchair choice depends on many things about where you live and work. Investigate your home and workplace. You need to be equipped with answers to questions such as these:

  • How wide are your doors—main entry, kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, etc.?
  • Are there tight angles to negotiate, such as a hallway that turns sharply at the bedroom door?
  • How large is the bathroom? Will it be possible to wheel your chair alongside the bathtub, or must you face it directly? Is the door smaller than the others in your house? Will you be able to close the door once inside with your wheelchair?
  • What is the knee clearance of tables and desks?
  • How high are cabinets and shelves that you might need to reach?
  • Is the terrain around your home paved? If not, what kind of surface is it? Is it level?
  • What are the surfaces where you will do most of your wheeling? Carpet, tile, concrete, packed soil?

You must also consider the vehicles which will carry you:

  • If you drive, do you have a car, or a van? Two or four doors?
  • What is the size of the trunk in the family car?
  • What kind of public transportation might you use?

Failure to consider any one of these points can mean having to live with a constant irritant or insurmountable obstacle, facing the stress of unnecessary restriction of your mobility every day—just because you got the wrong chair. You might even be risking your safety if, for instance, you are forced to make a long transfer to the bath or shower because you chose those fixed footrests which prevent you from getting close enough.

It’s A Lifestyle Choice

You will also want to consider your lifestyle and the kinds of activities you plan to participate in. If you like to be on the go—visiting friends, attending entertainment and sporting events, taking classes—or travel a lot either for pleasure or business, you might need a different chair than if you prefer a more quiet life and enjoy being home most of the time. Along with the previous lists, make one that includes:

  • Hobbies and activities for which your chair will be a consideration.
  • Relevant information about any "homes away from home." If you like to hang out at your best friend’s place, you want to make sure you can fit through those doors, too.
  • The importance of the appearance of your chair to you. Do you see yourself in something sporty? Eye-catching? Or do looks not matter much to you?
  • Your preferred level of physical activity. Do you like to get lots of exercise, or as little as you can get away with?