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How to Choose a Power Wheelchair

5 Tips on Choosing a Power Wheelchair

Invacare FDX Power Wheelchair | Silver Cross

1—Portable, full-size or heavy-duty?

When selecting the right type of power wheelchair, consider how often you will be using the chair. Will you be in it all day? Will you only need it occasionally? Do you travel regularly by car?

Travel/portable

Travel power wheelchairs are normally front or rear wheel drive. They can fold or easily dissembled by removing the seat, battery and base to fit in a trunk of a car or in airplane cargo. These chairs tend to be smaller, so they are great for apartments, malls or even to go on cruises. There may be less padding on the seat so it may not be comfortable for people that spend the majority of their day in the chair or extra support is required. The weight capacity is normally around 300 lb.

Full-size

A full size chair may be a better choice if the user will spend most of the day in the power wheelchair. Full-size power chairs generally have larger seats, armrests and footrests as well as more padding for comfort. It also has greater travel range (the distance it can travel before the battery needs to be recharged) since the battery is larger than travel/portable power wheelchairs. The weight capacity is normally around 300 lb.

Heavy-duty

People who are over 300 lb. will need a heavy duty power wheelchair with a reinforced frame and wider seating area. The wheels and casters for these types will tend to be wider as well to support the chair with the user in it. The weight capacity for most heavy-duty power wheelchairs is 450 lb.; more specialized wheelchairs have a weight capacity of 600 lb., and some manufacturers produce a 1,000 lb. power wheelchair.

2—Select the right drive system

Front wheel drive

Front wheel drive power wheelchairs can maneuver well over small obstacles. They have a respectable turning radius and are easier to maneuver within the home or in tight spaces. Although these chairs are known for providing good stability, they can fishtail when turning at high speeds. Front wheel drive power wheelchairs are suitable for indoor and outdoor use.

Mid wheel drive

These chairs boost the tightest turning radius of the three drives, and are great for use in apartments, malls and anywhere else space is limited. They are very easy to maneuver indoors or on flat surfaces outdoors, but do not maneuver as well over hills or rough terrain.

Rear wheel drive

Rear wheel drive power wheelchairs maneuver well over rough terrain making them a good choice if you enjoy the outdoors. Having the drive system in the rear allows for greater maneuverability, even while traveling at high speeds. They do have larger turning radiuses, so they may be difficult to maneuver indoors.

3—Environment

It is important to consider your living environment.

Indoors—Make sure the power wheelchair can fit and maneuver indoors. Measure the doorways in your home (be sure to account for hinged doors which can reduce the doorway opening by 2″). The doorway opening should be large enough for the power wheelchair as well as the armrests and joystick if it protrudes beyond the base of the chair. You should also be able to navigate through hallways and make 90° turns into rooms. Spacing in bathrooms is typically tight and must be considered—can the power wheelchair maneuver around the toilet and sink? If your home has more than one floor, consider a wheelchair lift and pay attention to the weight of the chair with you in it (many wheelchair lifts have a weight capacity of 750 lb.).

Outdoors—The terrain will affect the range of the chair. Larger and wider wheels and casters will travel better over rough terrain, making the ride smoother. Homes with porches and/decks may benefit from the installation of a porch lift.

4—Seating and positioning

Most users spend a lot of time in their power wheelchairs, so seating and positioning are very important for their health and comfort. The power wheelchair will have to accommodate custom backrests and seat cushions made of contouring forms, gels and other materials for those who require additional support. Individuals who are unable to or have limited ability to shift their weight should select a power wheelchair that can tilt-in-space or recline to relieve pressure and increase blood flow. These types of chairs can also ease transfers for caregivers and help manage posture for the user.

Tilt-in-space—changes the orientation of the chair without changing the angle of lower body.

Recline—changes the degree of recline for the backrest while elevating the legs.

The rider must be properly measured and fitted for the power wheelchair to ensure that all their needs are met. An ill-fitting power wheelchair may result in ailments such as pressure sores, and can exacerbate pre-existing conditions. An occupational therapist working with a pre-qualified dealer in your area can help ensure that the right fit power wheelchair is selected.

5—Controller

The most common controller for power wheelchairs is a joystick and keypad. The joystick controls the direction and speed in some models. The keypad can also control speed and other functions such as degree of recline and horn. Most require constant pressure to operate and will brake once the pressure is lifted from the control. Depending on the physical condition of the user, the power wheelchair must be able to accommodate other types of controllers:

  • Sip and puff—control by inhaling or exhaling into a tube.
  • Head control—switches added to either side of the head rest.
  • Foot control—pedals and buttons on the foot rest.
  • Chin control—controller near and operated by the chin.
  • Speech control—controlled by simple vocal commands.
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