How to Choose a Power Wheelchair?

Freedom to go wherever we want to is one of our basic needs. Sometimes, we may take this freedom for granted until we don’t have it anymore. Americans got a glimpse of that with travel restrictions post the tragic events of September 11, 2001 and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many elderly people and people with chronic health conditions like spine injury, Multiple Sclerosis, etc. may experience this lack of freedom, day in and day out. This is where a good power wheelchair can transform the lives of your family and friends with limited or no mobility, and in turn make the lives of their near and dear ones a tad easier. In this article, we answer the question, how to choose a power wheelchair?

Power wheelchair or manual wheelchair

When starting out, you have to decide whether you want to buy a manual wheelchair (read more about manual lightweight transport wheelchairs) or invest in a power wheelchair. Using a good manual wheelchair gives you freedom in mobility to a certain degree. But it will still keep you dependent on a companion or caregiver to a large extent, especially if you’ve low upper body strength.

How to choose a power wheelchair? Or should you go for a manual wheelchair?

A power wheelchair allows you to travel without putting a lot of effort and provide you with various power options for seating like recline, tilt, stand, etc.  It also gives the user a feeling of driving and maneuvering an automobile, albeit at a much less speed.

Moreover, if you like to be out and about, a power wheelchair will help you navigate the ramps and other difficult terrain with relative ease as compared to a manual wheelchair. In a nutshell, you should get a power wheelchair if your condition can be described by following:

  • You need help in getting your standard wheelchair pushed
  • You need assistance with your wheelchair from a caregiver when traveling
  • You have a frequent air travel itinerary and find it difficult to use manual chair
  • You have a need to go long distances locally in your wheelchair on a regular basis

If you have a mobility condition that prohibits you to use a standard manual wheelchair or to use a manual wheelchair safely, a power chair can help increase your mobility while reducing risk of injury. Your decision of buying a power wheelchair will be influenced majorly by your doctor’s and healthcare therapist’s recommendation.

Types of power wheelchairs

Based on where the drive wheels are located, there are 3 different types of power wheelchairs. As all of these types have their own pros and cons, the one you want to choose depends on the utility you want to derive out of the wheelchair.

Front Wheel Drive Power Wheelchairs

The drive wheels of the chair are in front of your seating position and the caster wheels are at the back. As the mechanism pulls the chair from front rather than pushing it from back, it is best suited for going over obstacles and bumps. It provides good stability in outdoor terrains, but the top speed has to be kept lower, lest it starts fishtailing.

Mid Wheel Drive Power Wheelchairs

For mid wheel drive power wheelchairs, the drive wheels are exactly below the seating position and, hence, these chairs are most intuitive to drive as they mimic our foot positioning. Also, they have the smallest turning radius, meaning they can turn pretty much at the same place. So, they are excellent to use indoors and wherever there is limited space like apartments, malls, etc. But they do not perform so well on uneven terrain or when facing bumps. Also, the top speed is comparatively low for mid-wheel drive wheelchairs.

Drive wheels of a midwheel drive wheelchair are in the middle

Rear Wheel Drive Power Wheelchairs

The drive wheels are behind the seating position and these are the most powerful of the lot. It has the highest top speed among all categories. So, if you’re planning to spend a significant time outdoors or want to use the wheelchair in rugged terrain, this is the best category for you. On the flip side, it has the largest turning radius, making it hard to use indoors or where there is limited space.

How do you choose the right power wheelchair?

There are multiple points you should consider while choosing a power wheelchair. Primary among them is the end user’s physical strength and ability, medical requirement and personal preferences. Size, weight, maneuverability, and price of the power wheelchair are other important criteria.

If you are buying the power wheelchair for some specific use like air travel or outdoor use, there are couple of additional parameters the wheelchair needs to be judged against. First and foremost, it needs to be approved by FDA for air travel. Furthermore, it needs to be easily and quickly foldable, and the design needs to be compact so that it can fit through narrow aisles and tight spaces like airplane storage areas.

In addition to the mandatory points mentioned above, you should consider the following points while choosing the optimum electric wheelchair for your or a loved one’s use.

Power wheelchair for the outdoors

Battery power and maximum travel range for the chair on full battery charge

You need to know how fast the battery charges and how long does the battery hold its charge in idle condition. You also need to understand what is the maximum distance that the wheelchair can travel on full charge of the battery. There are some options where a wheelchair can use two batteries that can increase the maximum travel range significantly.

Weight capacity and height adjustment options available in the chair

Each power wheelchair comes with a weight capacity limit. If the user’s weight is above this limit, the wheelchair may get damaged and the travel range may become lower. Hence, it is advisable to select a chair model that has a higher weight capacity limit compared to your weight. For tall people, height adjustment options, as well as options to adjust the wheelchair arms and footrests, are also crucial to ensure safety and comfort while traveling on the wheelchair.

Type of terrain you expect to drive the wheelchair most of the time

There are different types of power wheelchairs suitable for different types of terrains. You need to select one depending on the terrain you are going to primarily use it on. Some wheelchairs are equipped with large strong tires and can go easily on uneven terrains like grass, dirt, or sand. There are others with smaller wheels that can go nicely indoors or on pavements, with a small turning radius.

Warranty and after-sales service

When it comes to a power wheelchair, there are many moving parts, literally. And as time progresses, they tend to break down with wear. We always recommend going with brands that have a generous warranty and good after sales service, specifically in your area.

Any optional accessories available

Since you will spend a lot of time the wheelchair, few accessories given below can make your life more comfortable:

  • Storage Basket
  • Joystick with waterproof cover
  • Holder for cups
  • Additional cushion options
  • Gloves

Some of these might come with the power wheelchair but most need to be purchased as extra accessories.

Using and Taking Care of your Power Wheelchair

Power wheelchairs are significant investments in terms of money. When you get one, please do spend the time learning how to use it well. It will help you get the most out of your power wheelchair and make your life much more easy.

If they are taken care of well, you can extend your power wheelchair’s life by a couple of years and save yourself a lot of maintenance headaches. Simple steps like regular cleaning of your power wheelchair and timely preventive maintenance can go a long way in extending its life.

Our conclusion on how to choose a power wheelchair

When it comes to choosing a power wheelchair, there are a plethora of options available out there. The final product that you choose really depends on your usage, specific needs and tastes. Make a list of the criteria most important to you, go through the options and take the time to discuss it with your doctor or therapist and your near and dear ones before making the final decision. Happy mobility!

Gaurav Dhir, B. Tech, is an engineer by training. He also holds the degree of PGDCM from the prestigious IIM Calcutta. Gaurav is responsible for the health and wellness of 4 generations including his son, elderly parents and very elderly grandparents. He is a wellness aficionado and loves keeping and staying healthy.

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