The functions of a wheelchair
A manual wheelchair has the unattainable goal of compensating for legs and also of providing a comfortable seat. These are two very distinct and not terribly compatible tasks:
• It must offer seating from which to lead daily life and also if possible an arm chair in which to relax. To achieve the first task is already difficult in itself.
• It must allow freedom of movement and for this it needs to be lightweight, compact and easy to manoeuvre.
These two tasks, independently difficult to achieve, must also be compatible. The quality of the seating must not hinder movement and the manoeuvrability must not be gained at the cost of comfort.
Most wheelchairs fulfil these two functions; however there exist some where compromises have been made in order to emphasise the comfort over the manoeuvrability. These are comfort wheelchairs for the elderly or heavily disabled. Other lightweight wheelchairs privilege movement over comfort. Choosing a wheelchair therefore requires careful thought regarding the necessary balance between comfort and manoeuvrability.
We are going to talk mainly about the most common wheelchairs, namely folding ones. Certain points can equally be applied to rigid frame wheelchairs.
In the process of choosing your wheelchair, you may be helped by OTs and retailers. They can offer you technical advice but cannot choose for you. They may not have the time or all the information pertinent to your situation. This is why the best solution is for you to arm yourself with as much information as possible and to take responsibility for your choice. This guide is designed to give you that information in order to be able to discuss your choice with OTs and retailers in order to acquire the best possible chair for you.
There exist many good quality wheelchairs that are at the bottom end of the price range. They are lightweight aluminium folding chairs that weigh between 14 and 15 kg. They have all the essential adjustments that will allow you to adapt them to your needs and your morphology. There are no bad wheelchairs and the brand isn’t fundamentally important either. However, you need to pay very careful attention when choosing the model, the configuration and the adjustments.
Expensive high end chairs have undeniable advantages according to your tastes and needs.
Steel or Aluminium Frame
In addition to the preferable aluminium framed wheelchairs, there exist also steel framed chairs that weigh about 4 kg more, normally with non-removable wheels. This type of wheelchair is usually provided for the elderly in retirement homes. These wheelchairs should be avoided at all cost, even for the elderly who are generally less demanding.
Weight and manoeuvrability
Basic folding aluminium chairs weigh between 14 and 15 kg. The more expensive ones weigh about 2 kg less. Non-folding chairs can save another 1 or 2 kg, at the cost of being very pared down: no rear tyre protection, very small front castors, no rear handles and a very low backrest.
However, the reduction in weight has almost no real impact on the manoeuvrability. A person weighing 75 kg using a chair weighing 15 kg has a total weight of 90 kg to propel. If the chair only weighs 12 kg the same person will have 87 kg to propel, a saving of 3.3% which represents very little real difference.
There are many factors at play in how easily a chair moves forwards:
• The quality of the bearings.
• The choice of the front and rear wheels and the choice between solid or pneumatic tyres.
• The position of the wheels.
• The solidity of the backrest.
These differences will be discussed later in this guide. If you can, try out different wheelchairs to decide which type suits you best.