Buying a wheelchair for the first time – for yourself or a family member – can be mind-boggling. There are literally hundreds of different types on the market – from the standard rigid steel frame chair to lightweight foldable buggies and motorised models.
And unless you’ve participated in the LITTLE EDEN CEO Wheelchair Campaign ®, you’ve probably never even sat in a wheelchair before. So where do you begin to find the best wheelchair for your needs?
Here are some important things to consider:
- The age, weight and height of the user;
- The capabilities of the user – can they sit upright without support? Can they use their arms to propel themselves, or will someone need to push the wheelchair?
- How much time will they spend in the chair? All day, every day? Or will the chair only be used to assist someone who can’t walk far, e.g. out shopping?
- Will the chair be used by someone who mainly stays at home, e.g. an elderly person in a nursing home? Or will it need to be portable – popped into the boot of a car for a child who goes to school every day or an adult who goes to work?
- Your budget – manual wheelchairs range in price from just over R1 000 for a lightweight, folding “chair on wheels” to R50 000 for a robust, specialised chair for an athlete. Motorised chairs start at around R20 000. At the top end of the range, you could pay as much as R340 000.
If possible, consult a physiotherapist or occupational therapist who can help you pinpoint the most important features to suit your particular situation and lifestyle.
Best wheelchair for a child
If you’re buying a wheelchair for your child, make sure you get one that can be adjusted as he or she grows. Seat height, arm, back and head rests should all be adjustable, especially if the chair will be used daily for long periods of time.
Children who are able to propel themselves should be encouraged to do so. Being able to move around independently, without waiting for someone to push you to where you want to go, is important psychologically. Plus it helps keep your child fit, and builds arm and core body strength.
If your child is severely affected by CP and is unable to sit upright without support, you will need to consider a chair that provides more postural support than a traditional wheelchair or stroller.
Many of the children at LITTLE EDEN use Madiba buggies These are suitable for children from 6 months up who have little, if any, core strength. Cushioned seating provides full body and head support, designed to align the body correctly. Cushions can be customised to overcome specific posture challenges, allowing the child to sit upright and engage with the world. We are grateful for public support to enable us to replace and upgrade wheelchair cushions on a regular basis.
Best wheelchair for an active adult
For those who are able to sit upright and have good core, shoulder and arm strength, an upright manual wheelchair may be the best option. Manually operated chairs are less expensive and have the advantage of encouraging the user to keep fit.
On the downside, self propelled wheelchairs are usually bulkier. Because they have larger wheels, with an extra hand rim on the outside for manoeuvring the chair. Some models have removable wheels to make it easier to load them into a standard car boot.
If you spend a lot of time outdoors, you may need more durable wheelchair tyres, with a tread designed to grip uneven or slippery surfaces. Foam filled tyres are more practical. The last thing you want is a tyre that can be punctured and go flat.
Best wheelchair for an elderly person
Elderly people, especially, may lack the strength to propel themselves in a wheelchair, or negotiate curbs and other hazards. If your wheelchair will be pushed, choose one with smaller wheels and no hand rims.
If you live in a retirement home with assisted transport for wheelchair users, you will be able to manage with a lightweight rigid framed chair. But if the chair has to fit into a normal sized boot, you may be better off with the folding type. Either way, the lighter the chair, the easier it is to load, unload and push.
Motorised chairs are a popular choice for those who lack the strength or stamina to use a self-propelled wheelchair, but who want to be able to move around independently. Again, there are choices to be made. Chairs designed for indoor use (i.e. on smooth even flooring, including shopping centres) have smaller wheels and are easier to fit into the boot of a car.
Battery life is a crucial issue, as it will govern how far you can go. Getting stranded with a flat battery when you are far from home is no joke. Most wheelchair batteries take several hours to charge. Get into the habit of charging your battery every night, so your wheelchair is ready for use during the day.
Extra features for wheelchair comfort
People who sit in a wheelchair all day run the risk of developing pressure sores. So good cushioning and seating systems are essential. Foam cushions are the most common. They have the advantage of being inexpensive, lightweight and durable. But over time, foam compresses. So cushions should be replaced when necessary to ensure optimum comfort.
Some wheelchairs have reclining systems so you can widen the seat-to-back angle. You may also be able to lower the leg rests to open the knee angle. This is useful for relieving the pressure of sitting all day. It’s best to consult an expert if you are thinking of buying a wheelchair with these features, as the chair may be less stable when moved to a reclining position.
Arm and foot rests are designed to provide support and comfort. Make sure the armrests are sturdy enough to hold your weight as you get out of your wheelchair. Foot rests that fold up or swing away when you need to stand up are also more convenient.
Clip on wheelchair tables can be useful for children who need an accessible surface for toys or meals. Tables are also a useful alternative for supporting the arms from time to time, in place of arm rests.