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Guide to buying a wheelchair

With so many wheelchairs to choose from you may think it impossible to select the right wheelchair for your needs. Don't worry we're here to help and have written a brief guide to buying a wheelchair to assist you in making the right decision. We explain the basics and the features you may like to consider when selecting your new wheelchair. Please note this guide doesn't include electric wheelchairs.

Types of wheelchair - what's the difference ?

In essence there are two main types of wheelchair, excluding electric wheelchairs

  1. Self propelled wheelchairs or manual wheelchairs 

    This type of wheelchair is user propelled. Self propelled wheelchairs have large rear wheels with hand rims that allow the user to propel themselves. Self propelled wheelchairs typically suit the more active user who has sufficient upper body strength to power themselves along. Users of self propelled wheelchairs have the benefit of their independence, as they are able to move about without the assistance of an attendant. If you are not in this category, you may prefer to consider a transit wheelchair. Click here to see our range of self propelled wheelchairs.

  2. Transit Wheelchairs or transport wheelchairs

    A transit wheelchair is one that is pushed by a third party or an attendant. The design of transit wheelchairs is very similar with the exception of the rear wheels, which are much smaller. Known as transit or transport wheelchairs, they can not be propelled by the wheelchair user. However some more adventurous users with some leg mobility do occasionally shuffle themselves along backwards. Click here to see our range of transit wheelchairs or transport wheelchairs.

Things to look for when buying a wheelchair

Wheelchair weight

When selecting a wheelchair you must consider its weight . While a lightweight wheelchair is beneficial for most wheelchair users there is sometimes a compromise on the strength of the wheelchair due to the materials used. Considerations such as the weight of the user and the sort of terrain must be considered. If you are a larger user or expect to use the wheelchair on rough terrain then a stronger, perhaps steel framed, wheelchair is more suitable. However don't rule out aluminium wheelchairs as some are equally as strong. Lightweight wheelchairs can be seen here.

If the wheelchair user is out and about a lot, then in some cases a heavier wheelchair may be a better choice. A lightweight wheelchair is easier to manoeuvre, carry and easier to pick up for stowing away in a car boot. A standard wheelchair can carry up to approximately 18 stone (135Kg). If the wheelchair user needs a stronger or heavy duty wheelchair then a Bariatric wheelchair may be the best solution, suiting users up to 70 stone (440Kg) and more. Heavy duty or bariatric wheelchairs can be seen here.

Wheelchair Seat width

Comfort and support are of importance here, particularly if you intend to spend long hours in your wheelchair. The industry standard for a wheelchair seat is 18inches but you can buy wheelchairs with other seat widths to suit. In addition to the seat width, another important factor is the thickness of the wheelchair seat cushion. The standard depth or thickness of a cushion is between 5cm & 6cm. However other cushions using different materials and thicknesses can be bought, including memory foam wheelchair cushions. To see our range of wheelchair cushions please click here.

The advice we give to work out the ideal seat width is to sit on a tape measure and measure the size from hip to hip, add a couple of centimetres on the overall size and you have your ideal seat width. The added measurement is for comfort when moving, or transferring in and out of the wheelchair.

Wheelchair Seat Height

The seat height refers to the distance from the top of the wheelchair seat down to the ground. It is important to get this right for user comfort and support of the legs in the foot plates. The seat height is best measured whilst the user is sitting upright with knees bent at a 90 degree angle. The measurement itself is taken from the heel of the foot to the bend in the knee. Ideally the user should sit on a flat solid surface, this ensures that all measurements are correct and not influenced by cushions etc. Once you have the basic measurement, the depth of the seat cushion needs be added to the height and then a couple of centimetres for comfort and foot clearance.

What type of arm rests ?

There are 4 main types of wheelchair arm rests:

  1. Fixed arm rests
    These can not be removed from the wheelchair and are a permanent fixture.

  2. Adjustable arm rests
    The height can be adjusted for comfort.

  3. Removable arm rests
    These armrests can be fully removed from the wheelchair frame to make transfers to and from the wheelchair easier.

  4. Flip Back arm rests
    Flip back arm rests can be flipped up and down when side transfer of the user is required. A nice feature to have.

Other considerations of the arm rests apply to office workers where it is essential that the can sit at a desk. Arm rests have to be either low enough or flip up to allow the user to sit close to the desktop.

Wheelchair leg rests

Wheelchair leg rests allow the user to lift their legs and position them, often essential when the user has a leg in plaster or other condition. Elevated leg rests can be adjustable to ensure the leg is supported at the right height and angle. Wheelchair leg rests and other wheelchair accessories can be seen here.

Wheelchair foot rests / foot plates

When looking for foot rests always chose adjustable ones. This allows you to adjust the height of them in relation to the seat height and caters for leg length ensuring support and increased comfort.

Foot rests can be fixed, 'swing away' or detachable. Swing away or detachable ones make sitting and leaving the wheelchair easier for the user.

The remaining key factor of foot and leg rests is the weight factor. Lightweight aluminium footrests and leg rests are often preferred to help keep the overall weight of the wheelchair to a minimum.

If you have any questions or feel unsure about any aspect of your prospective wheelchair purchase, please call us on 0800 633 5377. We are always pleased to help.