A wheelchair, put simply, is a chair with attached wheels that is designed to be used as a replacement for walking, typically to compensate for a temporary or permanent handicap. Wheelchair use can help people who have become unable to walk and cannot maintain some degree of independence, especially if they do not have the upper body strength needed to stay on the move.
Though many types of wheelchairs exist, they all share some basic characteristics. Most prominently, two large wheels provide most of the chair’s propulsion. The majority of wheelchairs include at least two smaller wheels to assist with balance and steering. Other common features include foot and leg rests, rigid, durable seats and padding designed to provide stability and comfort.
Perhaps the biggest decision to make when choosing a manual wheelchair is the frame type. Rigid-frame wheelchairs are made from aluminum or titanium welded together and have few moving parts. They are designed with performance in mind and require relatively little maintenance. Rigid wheelchairs conform to the shape of the user’s body and can be pushed along with relatively little energy, making them excellent choices for independent, physically fit people with good upper body strength. For many users, the rigid wheelchair comes to be an extension of the body.
Folding-frame wheelchairs are designed to be collapsible for easy storage, but their many moving parts require more maintenance and they tend to be heavier than rigid wheelchairs. These chairs also tend to take more energy to push and do not conform as well to the user’s body. Still, folding wheelchairs are favorable for less independent users, such as very young or elderly people. For instance, long-term care settings make extensive use of folding wheelchairs.
Manual wheelchairs are great for people who have the upper-body strength to keep pushing themselves all day long or long-term caregivers to help them stay mobile. Users who want to maintain their independence despite a lack of upper-body strength, however, often choose powered wheelchairs. Powered chairs tend to be substantially more expensive and require more maintenance than manual chairs, but for some, the independence afforded by a motorized chair or scooter is well worth the cost.
A standard handicap wheelchair typically has a 16, 18 or 20-inch seat and is designed to support weights up to 300 pounds. For somewhat heavier people, extra-wide wheelchairs are available with 22 or 24-inch seats and capacities up to 400 pounds. Bariatric wheelchairs usually have 26, 28 or 30-inch seats and can support up to 700 pounds; they often feature reclining seats to distribute the user’s weight in a more safe and comfortable manner. On the opposite end of the size spectrum, pediatric wheelchairs have smaller frames, lower seats and smaller weight capacities, usually up to 250 pounds.
Although wheelchairs are often associated with fairly permanent use, there are several reasons why a user may need to rent one temporarily. For instance, an illness or injury may render someone immobile temporarily, but not for a long enough time to require purchasing a wheelchair outright. People who use wheelchairs permanently may still find it more convenient to rent wheelchairs for travel purposes than to transport their own chairs when they are on the road. For these situations, medical supply companies offer rental wheelchairs in a wide range of sizes and styles. Some frequent travel destinations, such as theme parks and resorts, offer on-site rentals as well.
Though they are not perfect, wheelchairs represent opportunities for people with limited mobility to retain some independence and live normal lives. For people with strong upper bodies, rigid-frame wheelchairs can make maintaining an active lifestyle possible. For the elderly and disabled, wheelchairs can still provide plenty of mobility. Consider all the available options and find the wheelchair that is right for you.