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Buying Guide - Wheelchairs & Scooters

Wheelchairs and scooters are personal transportation devices that can help you around when you are unable to walk on your own. Which one you purchase depends on what your needs are and what your doctor may recommend. There are many types and many options to choose from.

Having a doctor tell you (or coming to the realization on your own) that it’s time to consider a wheelchair or scooter can be a big shock. Knowing what types are out there and what some of the questions to ask are can help minimize the shock of having to transition to using a wheelchair or scooter.

Types of Wheelchairs & Scooters

Standard manual wheelchair – Generally available in 16”, 18” widths and made of steel. Some models can be available with swing away foot rests or elevating leg rests and full or desk length arm rests. Most chairs support a weight of 250 lbs or less.

Bariatric manual wheelchair – Heavy duty chairs designed to support larger weight, from 300 to 450 lbs. Usually made of steel and in widths of 20”, 22”, and 24”. They usually have the same options available to them as standard chairs.

Lightweight manual wheelchairs – chairs made from aluminum, composite, and with nylon or mesh upholstery to save weight. The primary advantage of a light weight chair is the reduced effort required to self propel the chair. Lighter weight makes the chair easier to transport as well. Available in sizes up to 20” in width and with many options available.

Ergonomic manual wheelchairs – This is a relatively new category. These chairs generally have seating and armrests that follow the natural contours of the human body allowing for a more comfortable ride. Much the same principle of a good office chair or bucket seat in a car. These chairs are mostly made of aluminum, have a long list of options, and are generally the costliest of the manual chairs. Available in 16”, 18”, and 20” widths

Active manual wheelchairs – the sports car of the wheelchair world they are designed mostly for spirited maneuvering. Very lightweight in construction, performance components throughout, and pricey.

Specialty chairs – Tilt-in-space, stand-up, & reclining chairs. Chairs built with a specific need in mind. This category should involve your doctor before purchase.

Pediatric chairs – Chairs for the younger crowd. Another category to involve your physician.

Transport chairs – often sold or advetised as an inexpensive wheelchair, they are in fact not a wheelchair at all. You cannot wheel yourself around in a transport chair; they are specifically designed to be pushed by a companion or caregiver. They have small wheels all around with no hand rims, and some models have hand brakes for the companion. Many wheelchair owners will also have a transport chair as they are great for traveling due to their light weight and portability.

Power standard wheelchair – these chairs have two motors that drive either the rear wheels or mid wheels depending on the make and model. Chair control is by joystick mounted within reach of your hand – usually on the armrest. They have batteries, a charging system (either onboard or separate), and the option list includes most of what’s available for a manual wheelchair. Prices can vary widely.

Power programmable wheelchair – Similar to a standard power chair, but with electronics that can be programmed to adjust all aspects of chair performance: Tremor damping, speed, braking, etc. Chairs that are programmable almost never come with the programmer. Usually the supplier has one and custom adjusts the electronics to the user when the chair is delivered.

Powered scooter - 3 or 4 wheels with some type of large captains style seating. Scooters generally have one motor, a tiller (the tall front part with bicycle style handlebars), and some have a basket for carrying items. Scooters vary in pricing, with size and seating determining most of the price. Scooters are great for people who still have some mobility on their own and occasionally need help getting around. However scooters are not very maneuverable and work best in large areas.

Rehab power wheelchair – Generally a wheelchair built to an individual’s specific requirements, whatever they may be. In fact pretty much anything can be put on one of these chairs for the benefit of the user.

Considerations Before Making a Mobility Purchase
  • Doctor recommendations and advice – always consult your doctor about any medical assist or device you wish to purchase – they may have specific requirements or may recommend to you not to buy a mobility device.
  • Your body frame – chairs and scooters have a weight rating for optimum safety and performance. Realistically consider the proper size.
  • Size of the chair – usually measured in width of the seat and overall width. Wheelchair and scooter seating come in widths from 16 to 24”. Measure the width of your hips while seated and add about an inch to get the right seat width (ideally you want the seat to be a little wider than your hips to accommodate bulkier clothing, such as a jacket).  Make sure the width of the chair or scooter can comfortably go through the doorways of you home too.
  • Seat to floor height – Proper height can make getting in and out of the chair substantially easier. Ideally you want your feet to touch the floor a little while seated.
  • Will you be using a seat cushion? A seat cushion adds 1 to 3 inches of floor to seat height depending on the cushion. While adding comfort, a cushion can make getting in and out of the chair harder.
  • Can your home support a wheelchair? – Even if your doorways are wide enough to get both the width of the chair and your arms (for manual chairs) through, consider what is immediately in the way once you enter. Can you make the turn? Does something need to be relocated? Pay special attention to the bathroom and kitchen areas of your home.
  • Ramps? Does your home and work have ramp access for you to use as you come and go? Are there doorway thresholds?
  • Do you travel? Consider light weight and portability. Consider where you are traveling to. Can the places you plan to visit support a user with a chair or scooter? Does your car/truck/van have the space to carry a wheelchair or scooter?
  • Desk length or full length armrests – Desk length arm rests are shorter which allow you to roll (or drive up) to a table or desk. If you eat in your chair, or work, this is the right option. Full length arm rests generally run the full depth of the seat and perhaps are more comfortable, but will limit your table or desk access.
  • Elevating leg rests or standard foot rests – consult your doctor – they may want you to have your legs elevated or they may not.
  • Maintenance – If the chair or scooter has pneumatic tires, are you able to fill the tires with air periodically? Consider flat free/maintenance free tires. Even if you never get a puncture, just like in a car or bicycle, tires need air on a regular basis. If the chair or scooter you wish to purchase has pnuematic tires, and you are unable to fill the tires with air, consider partnering with someone to help. If you are purchasing a battery powered wheelchair or scooter, are you able to plug in the battery charger (or partner with someone who can)?
Other Buying Guides
Buying Guide - Casters
Buying Guide - Tires
Buying Guide - Upholstery
Buying Guide - Bearings
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