Electric or power wheelchairs are a significant investment. However, they also greatly increase the mobility of the user. So, if you have done your research on the best power wheelchairs out there and are still thinking about whether to buy that great device you just saw online, I would suggest you go ahead with it. It will be one of your most useful companions for some time to come.
Like any device, you will get the most out of your wheelchair when you know how to use it well and safely. In this article, we cover the topic of how to use an electric wheelchair correctly.
It is important that you take good care of it and use it correctly to maximize your electric wheelchair’s useful life. Indeed, electric wheelchair use has many aspects, you may read on for some of the best practices on a comprehensive list of these aspects.
First and Foremost – Read the Instructions
You may be excited to lay your hands on your electric wheelchair and cannot wait to drive it around town. However, it is always highly recommended that you first thoroughly read the instructions that come with the device. Whether it is your first time using an electric wheelchair or you have been using one for some time, there isn’t a substitute for a thorough, old-fashioned read through of the user’s manual.
There are certain one time activities, like charging your wheelchair batteries to full, that you would need to complete before riding on it for the first time. These activities will be flagged on your device instruction book and I would highly recommend you to go through these. Further, you need to acquaint yourself with some features that maybe unique to your particular model of electric wheelchair. These can be joystick lock or the beep codes or LED indicator codes to understand the different messages that your wheelchair will try and convey to you from time to time.
General Driving and Using the Joystick
Before driving for the first time, ensure that the backrest, foot stand and the arm rests are adjusted to comfortable positions for you to drive down the distance that you intend to. You have to set the joystick controls as per your convenience and attach the joystick to the relevant arm rest depending on you being left or right handed.
If you are wondering whether to attach the safety seat belt or not as speeds do not cross 5 miles per hour, let me remind you that a lot of wheelchair accidents occur annually due to toppling over, or collision from behind. Your wheelchair cushioning will save you that extra bruise in the unfortunate incident of an accident, but only if you have strapped on that seat belt. In the unlikely case your wheelchair does not have seat belts, you will do well to install them as soon as possible.
It may take some time for you to get used to the joystick controls. You should not venture into heavy traffic (pedestrian or motorized) till the time you are confident of using the controls. Do not hesitate to use the horn to sound and alert other people or vehicles who might not be aware of your presence. It is extremely important to also know the exact way to your destination and where the wheelchair access zones are. The last thing you would want is standing on the street side of the curb and searching for the curb ramp.
Electric wheelchairs can weight as much as 250 pounds. Add another 150 pounds of the rider’s weight to that and you are talking about 400 pounds of weight moving about. While ensuring the rider’s safety is important, do make sure that your use of your power wheelchair is safe for others who share the road and sidewalk with you.
When you are travelling at comparably high speeds, you should not try and make sharp turns. Doing so may result in the tipping over of the wheelchair, resulting in personal injury and device damage, not to mention, the risk of collision. On most wheelchairs, releasing the joystick itself is sufficient in bringing down the speed. Most wheelchairs are not equipped to travel on muddy, slushy or areas full of snow. You must try and avoid such areas.
Important – Before getting into and out of your wheelchair, you should always lock the wheels in to prevent the wheelchair from moving while you are moving in and out of it.
Driving Up or Down a Ramp
Wheelchair ramps help you move from one level of a building to another. Initially, you may find it a little difficult to drive up or down a ramp in your wheelchair. Driving up is a bit trickier as after reaching the top of the ramp you will have to stop within the landing space provided. So, it is my recommendation that you keep your speed to a minimum while you driving up a ramp. If you need to adjust the center of gravity while driving up the ramp, you may want to lean in a little.
While driving down a ramp, you want to brake intermittently to reduce speed. Opposite of driving up, you have to lean backwards to adjust center of gravity of the wheelchair while driving down a ramp. Ramp steepness is subject to wheelchair friendly construction guidelines. But in some cases, you may find a ramp too steep for your comfort. In such a case, you can zigzag your way down. This will help you manage the effect of gravity on your speed.
While you may want to test and stretch the ability of your wheelchair to go over obstacles, please do not try to go over objects of more than a few millimetres. It may result in toppling over your wheelchair and risk serious injury and damage to your wheelchair.
Driving an Electric Wheelchair into an Elevator
Another tricky part is maneuvering into an elevator. You should always be backing into an elevator rather than going in facing the elevator. This will help you prevent a tight maneuver inside the elevator which may inconvenience other users. While backing up, keep a close eye on the existing users of the elevator. While most people will be considerate of prematurely closing elevator doors, please be alert and keep an eye on the doors as well, to avoid any injury.
Once inside an elevator, if you need to turn (to press the buttons or for anything else), make sure that you have enough room to do so. Best wheelchairs for tight spaces are usually mid-wheel drive wheelchairs. With their drive wheels in the middle (almost right under the user), they allow you to practically turn in place.
Total Carriage Weight
Most wheelchairs will be able to carry more than 350 pounds. In fact there are heavier duty wheelchairs that can carry up to 500 pounds too. You would, ideally, want to be well clear of the load limit. You will seldom be near your power wheelchair’s total weight limit. However, you need to keep a watch on extra baggage that you might be carrying along.
Too much weight may change the center of gravity of the wheelchair and you may need some time to get used to it. For example, you may need a longer distance to completely stop after applying the brakes. So, you have to keep that in mind and not increase your speed beyond a a certain level. Your power wheelchair’s battery life will also likely to be shorter if you are carrying extra weight. Finally, the best place to stow all the baggage is under the seat. You would not want to keep your hands occupied or keep stuff on your lap while driving your wheelchair.
Charging your Electric Wheelchair’s Batteries
It is important that you start using your electric wheelchair on a full battery, before every use. It will help you keep your peace of mind on longer trips and will also prevent your batteries from draining out heavily. Consistently discharging your batteries heavily will reduce your battery life. Most wheelchairs take about 6-8 hours to charge fully, so you may want to charge the wheelchair completely by plugging in over night. Always remember to turn off the power when you are not charging.
If, for any reason, your wheelchair battery dies, do read about how to charge a dead electric wheelchair battery.
One of the most popular accessories for an electric wheelchair is an electric wheelchair cover. It keeps your wheelchair clean and safe during storage.
Portable (or temporary) wheelchair ramps help people get in and out of a house or a car or surmount small obstacles. You might want to consider picking up a temporary wheelchair ramp for your use. If you plan to take the wheelchair around in a vehicle, you might want to get a wheelchair carrier for your vehicle.
Wheelchair cushions provide added comfort and padding. Some people, especially the elderly, like to add a wheelchair cushion to their ride.
Like most people, if you plan to use your wheelchair to do day-to-day chores, you will need to carry things around. In such a situation, bags for electric wheelchairs will come in handy.
If you have to ride in busy traffic, you probably should install mirrors on the side to keep an eye on the traffic behind you. Similarly, you should install tail lights or fluorescent reflective lights on your wheelchair, if you travel during night time. Though, some electric wheelchairs already come with reflectors installed. A helmet is always a good investment for an electric wheelchair user.
For colder climes, read our review about best gloves for wheelchair users. If you live in a rainy area, you might consider buying a wheelchair armrest cover. It is a handy cover that ensures that your joystick and other electric components on the armrest remain safe from water.
Cleaning and Maintaining Your Electric Wheelchair
You should clean your wheelchair often to remove dust, grease, mud etc. But you should be careful not to use too much water or any chemicals. You should ideally use a damp cloth to wipe the surface of your electric wheelchair.
In case you need to wash the seat cushion thoroughly, it is recommended that you completely detach the seat and wash it. Steer clear of the joystick panel, the electric circuitry and battery boxes when using a damp cloth. Use dry cloth to clean the battery box and wires or cables or any other electrical component. While in regular use, you will do well to always check for loose nuts or cables before using your wheelchair. Also, keep a close tab on battery performance, if you feel that your battery is giving you less distance, try to avoid discharging the batteries by more than 80 per cent.
If you are stowing away your wheelchair for long period, you must make sure to remove the batteries to avoid them from being completely discharged.
A periodic activity that you will not love doing is checking the air pressure of the rear tires, if they are of inflatable type. There are wheelchairs available with solid tires as well, which are slightly on the higher range in terms of price.
Further, if you are taking your wheelchair along on an overseas trip, you would always want to get it serviced from an authorized service center before leaving. This will significantly reduce chances of your wheelchair breaking down in the middle of the trip and dampen the fun of your trip. You would also like to carry a spare tire if possible, and the kit to change a flat tire. You may also want to read more about best power wheelchairs for air travel here.
The typical preventive maintenance period for power wheelchairs are about three to four months and you would not want to risk it by going more than four months without a servicing done. If you want more details, you can refer to our article on how to clean a power wheelchair.
To start using the wheelchair manually, that is, to switch from powered to manual mode, you have to switch off the electromagnetic brakes of the device first. Make sure your caregiver is also aware of the same. This feature is especially helpful when you are running out of your batteries.
Finally, though we have tried to provide a comprehensive set of best practices for operating and maintaining you electric wheelchair, it is good practice to keep yourself updated on the latest in wheelchair use. So enjoy your ride and continue to learn about your mobility aid.