How to Choose Your Power Wheelchair

A power, or electric, wheelchair is a great way to improve mobility and independence for those who need it. With an electric motor and navigational controls, a power wheelchair can be a comfortable and practical option for you or the user you are buying one for. As there are a variety of power wheelchairs available on the market, you will want to choose the one that is best for you or your loved one. Ask for suggestions from professionals, and consider your basic and specific needs like seating, size, motor, and other options.

Consider your mobility needs around the house. Maybe you can walk with assistance (like a cane) at home, and need a motorized wheelchair for outside the house. However, if you’ll be using your wheelchair extensively in all environments, you’ll need to consider what makes a chair compatible to use at home.

  • If you’ll be using the chair in your home, consider how easily you’ll be able to get in and out of it. Think about things like seat height — how high the seat is from the floor and how that compares to your bed height. Consider how wide the chair is compared to your doorways. Check for armrests and foot rests that can move out of the way, for easier exiting.
  • Determine the turning radius of the chair — how much space it needs around it to complete a full 360° turn. Whether or not this is important to you will depend on your living space.

Decide what your chair needs to do in the community. Where will you be taking your wheelchair? If the user of the power chair travels often, the wheelchair should be more compact and easy to take apart for transport. If the wheelchair will be used outdoors, make sure to get a wheelchair that has durable, quality wheels intended for outdoor use.[2]

  • If your chair needs to be maximally portable, look into models like Oracle Mobility Comfy Go or others models that are foldable. Oracle Mobility Majestic is an example of a model that can be more easily disassembled and reassembled, to make transportation easier.

Decide on power base placement. Power wheelchairs come as either rear-wheel, mid-wheel, or front-wheel drive. This affects how the chair moves, and most people find that one type or another is easier and more comfortable for them to control. It’s a matter of personal preference, as each type has advantages and disadvantages. Try to test-drive a model of each type to see what feels the most comfortable to you.

  • If you want maximum speed, consider a rear-wheel drive model. Some of these models can travel up to 8.5 miles per hour, which may be helpful if traveling longer distances.
  • Mid-wheel drive chairs generally seem to be the most maneuverable and have the smallest turn radius, which is ideal for tight spaces.
  • Front-wheel drive chairs are usually the slowest option, but are best for uneven terrain and handling areas like snow, grass, and curbs.

Look into cushion and backrest material. The materials for these vary — they can be air filled, contoured foam, gel, or air-foam combinations. Discuss your needs with your care provider or transportation specialist — each type of material has advantages and disadvantages regarding stability, pressure distribution, airflow, and insulation.

  • You are least likely to get pressure sores with well-fitted pressure-reducing cushions.

Choose the right seat for you. Many chairs have the standard “captain’s seat,” whereas others can recline, tilt, raise your leg rests, or go into standing position. Some children’s models have power-seating that can lower the whole seat to the floor, so your child can more easily play on the ground. You can work with your doctor to decide on the best seating option for you, but also consider the following:

  • What is your sitting balance? Can you use both of your hands without support? If not, a tilt, recline, and lift feature may be beneficial.
  • Is there a risk you’ll get pressure sores? If so, you’ll want a way to take weight and pressure off of your buttocks, such as with a tilting or standing seat.
  • If you do get a power wheelchair with power seating, be sure you know how to use the functions properly to avoid injury

Get a chair with alternate controls, if applicable. Some models of chair can be controlled without a joystick, using other types of voluntary motions. If this is a requirement for you, you’ll need to work with a specialized care team to pick the right equipment for you. Some alternate control styles include:

  • Sip and puff, via inhaling and exhaling into a tube
  • Voice control
  • Chin control, foot control, and head control

Investigate battery life. There is pretty significant variation among batteries in how long they hold a charge — it’s usually anywhere from 10 – 25 miles (16 – 40km). Think about how far you’ll want to be able to take your chair on a single charge. Check battery life for all the different chairs you consider to find one that meets your needs.

  • Battery life will vary somewhat depending on the weight the chair is carrying and the terrain.

Consider the size of the user. If the user is a child, you will need to choose a pediatric wheelchair that can accommodate growth. Most adult wheelchairs can accommodate passengers up to 300 pounds (136kg). For heavier users, look into bariatric or “heavy duty” power wheelchair options — some of which can accommodate up to 650 pounds (295 kg).

  • Along with weight, consider getting a wider seat width for larger users.

Get a model that can be modified. Remember that your needs may change over time. Whatever type of chair you choose now, be sure that you will be able to modify the device in the future. That will allow you to keep your current chair compatible with your needs, rather than having to buy a new power wheelchair in the future.

  • Some models of wheelchair are built so that you can change or modify the steering mechanism or seating system, or even make it compatible to use with tracks in the house.

Watch your budget. Prices vary and how much you’re able to spend may limit your choices. It will help to set a budget and stay within that budget. Make a list of priorities that you want to get out of your power wheelchair, and if price is a limiting factor focus on your top one or two priorities.

  • For instance, consider whether you need all-terrain outdoors wheels (which are more expensive), or whether simple, cheaper wheels will suit you. Is this more or less important to you than having power seating? It’s up to you what you want to spend your money on, so know beforehand what your goals are.

Be safe. Once you have chosen your power wheelchair, it is important to go over safety and proper use. Thoroughly read through the manufacturer's guide so that you understand how to operate the device. Make sure there is a working seatbelt and wear it at all times. Other safety precautions include:

  • Keep your hands, arms, feet and legs within the framework of the wheelchair to decrease your chances of tipping over.
  • Keep the battery fully charged so you don't get stranded.
  • Turn off the power when getting in and out of the chair.
  • Use caution around young children who may reach for the control unit and cause it to unexpectedly move or accelerate.
  • Be cautious outdoors. Avoid going outside when visibility is poor, such as at night or during bad weather. Try to avoid busy streets and intersections and do not attempt to maneuver over a curb unless the chair is designed to do so. If using the chair on a path or trail, make sure the earth is firm, fairly smooth, and dry.

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