Of all the steps in my medical journey, choosing a wheelchair felt like the biggest. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe it was because it came with the acknowledgement that my illness was significant and long-lasting. Maybe it was because it would be such a public display of my illness. Whatever the reason, it was a monumental step.
It was also the doorway to freedom. It meant that all those places that had been inaccessible or unattainable (family trips to the zoo, long shopping sprees, walks in the park, school events) were suddenly feasible for me. It meant that I could conserve my energy for things that mattered to me, like showing up for family events. In time, I’ve even learned to use the chair preemptively to save up energy for future events. It has given me back parts of my life.
My husband and I are compulsive researchers, especially for big purchases like a wheelchair. We spent months studying, comparing, and researching countless options. We borrowed chairs from others, and even used a rental chair for a time. All of those things combined helped us narrow down what we wanted (and didn’t want) in my wheelchair. Here are some points to consider in your own shopping.
Type of Chair
If you’ve never spent much time looking at wheelchairs, you may not realize there are different types. In broadest terms, there are four basic types of wheelchair: a transport chair, a manual wheelchair, a tilt chair, and a powered chair.
Transport chairs are useful for short-term use, or if you do not plan to propel yourself. They have four small wheels, are typically collapsible, and are very lightweight. Many models come with hand brakes on the handles, so that they can double as a walker. One of the first chairs I borrowed was a transport chair. It served its purpose in terms of allowing me to get around without walking. However, for me, it was a frustration not being able to propel myself at all and being fully dependent on someone to push me.
Manual wheelchairs usually have small front wheels and, large back wheels with hand rims. These rims allow you to move the wheelchair on your own. In versions meant short-term or part-time use, handles on the back of the seat (at roughly shoulder height) make it easy for someone to push you as well. Other models intended for long-term use (for example, with paralysis) have a low back without handles for pushing.
Tilt chairs offer fuller support, and are especially useful for individuals with dysautonomia, dizziness, paralysis, or another condition that makes sitting upright difficult. They have a higher back, sometimes with head and neck support. The angle is usually adjustable, and sometimes there are also adjustable leg supports. Tilt chairs almost always have handles at the back to push, and some also have hand rims on larger back wheels.
Powered chairs come in a range of the styles listed above, but are motorized. They are ideal for individuals with limited use of their arms, more severe weakness or fatigue, or who are otherwise unable to propel themselves forward independently. They’re a fantastic option that allows independence, as you are not reliant on someone to push the chair for you.
Size of Chair
As with most things, wheelchairs come in a wide range of sizes from pediatric to bariatric sizes. It’s important to consider the width of the chair when you are choosing: too narrow, and it will be impossible to ride comfortably; too wide, and it will be difficult to reach the arm rests and/or hand rims.
Some chairs also have varying heights and leg rest lengths. This can be especially helpful if you are shorter or taller than the “average” height.
On the more expensive end of the spectrum, it’s possible to have wheelchairs custom made to your specific dimensions. This is by far the best way to ensure a good fit, but it does come with a hefty price tag.
Weight of the Chair
Depending on your needs, you may want to consider the weight of the chair you are purchasing. Conventional chairs can be quite heavy. This isn’t a problem if you will be pushed by someone at all times. However, if you have weakness or fatigue and plan to push yourself, you may want to consider a lightweight or ultra lightweight chair. While it may not seem important at first, the extra weight of a heavier chair can quickly deplete your energy stores.
There are a wide range of other features to consider. For example, I knew from the chairs I had tried out previously that I wanted a wheelchair with a skirt guard. This small piece of plastic or metal sits between the seat and the wheels, and keeps clothing from getting caught up in the wheels as you roll.
I knew I wanted a seat that was comfortable, breathable, and washable. Seats come in a wide range of options, so make sure you find something that will work for you.
We also wanted a chair that was easily collapsible and didn’t take up much room. We knew we’d be using it on family outings, including overnight trips that required us to fit in luggage for our family. So we opted for a seat that folds down into a narrow space with handles that fold down as well. We can easily store it standing or laying in the back of our SUV.
Lastly, I knew I wanted foot rests. I had used a couple of chairs that didn’t have good foot support and it was exhausting to have to hold my legs up as I rode. Foot rests were a must-have for my particular needs, but they’re not necessary for everyone. And not having foot rests (or having some that are collapsible like mine) make it possible to “scoot” yourself along with your feet.
Other options include things like cupholders, storage bags, movable arm rests, and a range of other features.
The Chair I Chose
In the end, I chose the S-Ergo-115 Ultra Lightweight Wheelchair for myself. There were a number of factors that went into selecting this particular chair:
- It was incredibly well-reviewed over a variety of websites and panels. It was consistently rated well by people with similar needs to mine (which is an important consideration!).
- It was extremely lightweight. If I’m in the chair, it’s because I’m having major issues with fatigue and weakness. I need to save all the energy I can for things that are important. While someone else most often pushes me, this chair is lightweight enough that I can manage on my own for a time if needed without becoming totally depleted. Now that my kids are older, it also means it’s light enough that they can push me. Sharing the workload helps everyone!
- The sizing was right for me. The seat was available in an appropriate width, and the foot rests were far enough that I wasn’t cramped or uncomfortable in the seat (I’m 5’8″).
- It came with foot rests that were comfortable and could be moved out of the way when I get in and out of the chair. This was something I had learned the hard way on a loaner chair–not having the option to move the foot rests out of the way made it really challenging to get into and out of the chair.
- The built-in seat was breathable mesh, and it came with a removable washable seat cushion. This was another important factor for me, especially if I was going to be spending a lot of time in the chair. I wanted to be able to be comfortable and clean.
- The price was affordable. It was an investment, but not something that broke the bank. I was actually fortunate in that someone had offered to buy a wheelchair for me; but even so, it was important to me that the price be reasonable. Of all the chairs I looked at, this one seemed to offer some of the best value for cost.
- Finally, it came in the right color. Of course color wasn’t the thing at the top of my list, but if I was going to need a wheelchair in my early thirties, style and appearance were important considerations for me. Red is my very favorite color; in fact, I call it my “happy color.” Much of my medical equipment is in this color for good reason: it just makes me smile. So I looked long and hard to find a wheelchair that came in red.
I hope these tips are helpful as you consider your own wheelchair. To be honest, I hesitated to use mine early on. Now that I’ve lived with this illness for a while and I’m in the throes of my third major relapse, I’m learning to use it more and more (sometimes preemptively). Anything that conserves energy and allows me to be out and about with my family is worthwhile to me. A wheelchair can be a fantastic tool for managing chronic illness or pain.