Male wheelchair user walking his dog on a trail in a park overlooking a river.

The question of “What is the best wheelchair?” has been pondered by both new and experienced wheelchair users since the first wheelchair was created.

Sorry to dash your hopes of reaching wheeler Nirvana, but you are probably not in the best or even the right wheelchair.

Below are some of the factors that can cause your wheelchair to hit or miss the mark.

Why Wheelchairs Miss the Mark
Here are common reasons that turn wheelchair users against their wheelchairs:

  • The user experienced decreased or increased physical function and the wheelchair was no longer proper.
  • Negative input from others. Mostly wisecracks and derogatory comments.
  • The wheelchair was difficult to use.
  • The wheelchair was thought to be unsafe.
  • The chair had chronic repair/maintenance issues.
  • The wheelchair was esthetically displeasing.
  • Sitting in the wheelchair caused pain or discomfort.
  • The wheelchair was never adjusted properly for fit and alignment causing pain, limiting function, and making the wheelchair difficult to use.
  • The wheelchair lacked certain needed features or components.
  • High maintenance/repair costs.
  • Lack of training making the chair difficult to use.
  • Lack of faith in the wheelchair due to lack of user input during the prescription process.
  • The wheelchair did not resolve accessibility issues or even created them.
  • Difficult to maneuver indoors.
  • Difficult to transport/tie down/store.
  • Frequently required help from another person to use some features.
  • Support from manufacturer/seller was poor.
  • User refusing to recognize the need for a wheelchair or having a disability.
  • Warranty issues with manufacturer.

Limitations on Finding the Right Wheelchair

Let us get back to the odds. There are thousands of different wheelchairs out there. Add to that the dozens of size configurations each chair can have, hundreds of add-on components, various wheels, tires, seating systems, and various frame configurations. No doubt you are getting the picture- the possible combinations are endless, which makes hitting the mark a needle in a haystack effort.

Since most wheelchairs bought today are funded, the funder (as in Medicare, Medicaid, insurers) have a large say in what you will be rolling in. When you cut the chairs or components that are not in the funding playbook, you cannot help but skew the odds against success.

Another limiting factor can be your wheelchair selection or rehab team (if you are lucky enough to have one). You know, therapists, equipment providers, and maybe even a doctor hanging around for good measure. Even if your team members are the industry gold medalists, they will still be familiar with only a fraction of the wheelchairs, components, and configurations available.

What’s To Be Done?

First off, start by helping yourself. If you are seriously thinking of transferring into a new wheelchair or just window shopping, start with a bucket list of priorities. What is most important to you? Seating system comfort and flexibility, portability, weight, pushability, speed, range, height elevation, looks, or any other elements that you can think of. Then start defining your wheelchair by assigning your priorities an importance rating. When you start shopping, track the priorities against the chairs and get serious about the wheelchairs that have the most checkmarks.

Make sure that any wheelchair you consider can be dimensioned to you. Misaligned legs, arms, or leaning torsos get uncomfortable very quickly and not only turn you off to the chair but may also do physical harm such as tissue trauma and contracted joints.

Consider External Factors

Do not decide in a vacuum. Look around you and consider factors that may affect your decision. Terrain is an important one. Let us say you are a marginal pusher, but you live in a pancake city like Miami or Denver. You may do well with a lightweight or ultralightweight manual wheelchair. Place that same combination in San Francisco or Pittsburgh and you will soon be screaming for a powered wheelchair with plenty of torque.

Don’t forget distances! Try and figure out how far your furthest regular wheelchair trip is. Can you make it happen in a manual wheelchair? If considering a powered wheelchair, will the batteries hold enough juice to make the trip and at what speed. Remember, you need to add a grain of salt to the distances manufacturers assign to their power wheelchairs. Things like hills, loose and wet surfaces, and extra weight can adversely affect a chair’s running distance and accelerate battery depletion.

What external elements does your wheelchair need to work with? Keeping your wheelchair in sync will help keep you in sync with your daily activities and life. Remember to consider the built world around you and the need to interface with desks, counters, tables, appliances, doorways and any other elements you may encounter. Make sure your wheelchair fits in your world.

How will you travel long distances? Will you be transferring into a car and lifting your wheelchair into it? Will you be using accessible public transportation or driving a van from your wheelchair? Each of these methods place certain demands and prescription criteria on a wheelchair.

Consider the natural world in your decision-making process. Do you live in a hilly, flat or mixed terrain area? Do you need off road wheelchair features, greater traction and torque, speed adjustability or safety lighting? Do you have hobby or recreational pursuits that take you on the road least travelled? Some terrain tackling features can be built into your everyday wheelchair but at some point, you may require a second wheelchair.

Look Good Feel Good

Looks should not be the end all on your priority list but it should be somewhere on your priority list. You spend a great deal of time in your wheelchair. It is part of your daily life and part of your private space. It’s as close to a part of you as any equipment can get so having your wheelchair looking good, broadcasting your personality or making a statement is not an unusual desire. Go for it!

Keep It Simple

Keep your wheelchair as simple as possible. Unnecessary features and components make for a heavier and more difficult to use wheelchair with increased potential for mechanical failure. Downtime for repairs can really cramp your lifestyle and can dramatically raise the long-term cost of being a wheelchair user.

Do Your Homework

Ask, read, look, try and then ponder over it for a while and then go over the decision-making process one last time. Whether your wheelchair is funded or you are emptying your own pockets, you have only one shot at it for now. Make it count!

Be A Player

Don’t sit on the sidelines during the prescription process. Become a player by asking lots of questions, offering suggestions. You should receive answers that speak directly to your concerns. “It will all work out” and “Don’t worry about it” are not good answers.

You should expect full disclosure related to any warranties, support, and after sale adjustments. You should expect and get full training on the wheelchair and use of all features and components. Do not expect to get the best wheelchair out there. However, do expect to get a good usable wheelchair that suits your life and you.

Ziggi Landsman