How to Choose a Wheelchair – Chair Institute Buying Guide

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If you or a member of your family suddenly find yourself faced with mobility issues, you’ll quickly find yourself immersed in a world with a surprisingly steep learning curve. 

Granted, if you’re in a hurry and you need to get some level of mobility immediately, you can get any available wheelchair, but understand that your purchase is going to be very much hit or miss. If you get lucky, maybe the wheelchair you buy will meet your needs but most likely not.

Our recommendation on that front is to rent something to meet your immediate needs and then spend time doing some research so that when you make a purchase, you can be assured that what you ultimately buy will match your specific needs.

This page was written to provide people in your situation with a concise resource page to help shortcut the research process making it simple and easy to zero in on the right wheelchair for you.

Right-Sizing Your Wheelchair


The more time you spend in a chair (any type of chair) the more critical it is that your chair of choice fit you well. Obviously then, an appropriately sized wheelchair is incredibly important for people with mobility issues because, in all probability, they’ll be spending a significant portion of every day in it, but how do you know? 

Wheelchair Measurement

The simplest and best way is to take two careful measurements. These are:

  • Seat Depth: Take this measurement from the back of the user’s bottom to the midpoint of the back of the knee.
  • Seat Width: For an optimal fit, measure the hips of the person who will be using the chair from outer edge to outer edge, and then add 2.”
  • Seat to Floor Height: No measurement is needed here, but keep the following in mind.
  • If you’re under 5’ tall, the optimal seat to floor height for you is 14” to 16"
  • If you’re 5’ tall to about 6’, your optimal seat to floor height is 17” to 18”
  • If you’re taller than 6', a seat to floor height of 19” to 21” is your best bet

Notes:

  • Where seat depth and seat width are concerned, these measurements should be taken while the person you’re buying the wheelchair for is in a seated position, on a firm, straight-backed chair (preferably wooden). Taking the measurements while the user is sitting in a cushioned seat will distort the results.
  • Where seat width is concerned, the less space there is between the edges of the user’s hips and the sides of the wheelchair itself, the more the user will benefit from whatever support the chair provides. Understand, however, that clothing has an impact here and to account for the added bulk of winter clothing, adding 2” is recommended. If you live in a warmer climate where you seldom have to bundle up for the winter, you can probably get by with using a measurement of hip width +1”.

Other Critical Wheelchair Features


In addition to the basic measurements we mentioned above, there are a trio of features that are so critically important you’ll absolutely want to make sure they’re included on whatever chair you ultimately purchase.

  • Adjustable Armrests Even if you get the measurements we talked about above exactly right, if the armrests of the wheelchair you buy aren’t height adjustable, the person sitting in the chair is invariably going to suffer from poor posture while sitting in the chair because the arms are almost certainly not going to be optimally positioned for them. For short stints, poor posture isn’t that big a deal but remember, someone with mobility issues is bound to be spending quite a lot of time in the chair every day, and over the long term, it’s going to have a huge impact.
  • Adjustable Leg Rests This is critical for all the same reasons that adjustable armrests are essential. The ability to customize the leg rests is huge, and to maximize the comfort of the person sitting in the chair, you want to make sure you adjust the legs such that the upper portion of the person’s legs (knee to hip) is parallel with the ground.
  • Swing Away Leg Rests This is another critical component, and for a couple of different reasons. First and foremost, it makes transferring into and out of the chair a much simpler proposition and greatly reduces the risk of injury. Second, it makes it possible for the person using the chair to roll it much closer to a work or dining table which enables them to participate more fully in family dinners and do productive work.

One final note on this point. Wheelchairs come in all shapes and sizes with most manufacturers of mobility devices crafting standard sized chairs, bariatric chairs for heavier users and smaller pediatric versions for children and young adults.

While these tend to be rather self-selecting, the only important thing to bear in mind is that every chair will have a maximum supported user weight listed somewhere on its product specifications sheet. Just be sure that whatever chair you purchase is appropriate based on the amount of user weight it will support.

Which Type of Wheelchair Is Best for You?


Broadly speaking, wheelchairs fall into three basic categories: 

  • Transport Chairs
  • Manual Wheelchairs
  • Electric Wheelchairs

Which one is right for you ultimately depends on your budget, personal preferences and how you intend to use your chair, but here are some general guidelines and rules of thumb:

Transport Chairs

As the name of this chair indicates, this type of chair is optimized for those who spend a lot of time on the go. This type of chair makes a relatively poor chair for home use or spending extended periods in. It’s also a poor choice for those who want to venture off the beaten track and spend time traversing rugged terrain.

Drive Medical Lightweight Steel Transport Wheelchair

Given those limitations, you might be wondering what it’s actually good for. It’s a fair question. The short answer is that the transport chair is an ideal choice for people with light to moderate mobility issues who need something to help them get around in public spaces.

If you need a wheelchair to go shopping in, or something you can use for a trip to the mall, this is your go-to choice. Its lightweight and small folded footprint makes it easy to carry with you just about anywhere, unfold it and go enjoy a short stint out.

As long as you keep to flat, level, and preferably paved or indoor surfaces, this is an awesome option. Bear in mind though, that transport chairs typically offer little to nothing in the way of padding or support, so if you need a chair for use for extended periods of time over the course of any given day (say anything more than two hours at a stretch), this type of chair becomes increasingly less attractive.

Manual Wheelchairs

This is a broad category that encompasses the majority of the wheelchairs sold and is the mental image most people have when they imagine a wheelchair. Bigger and bulkier than their Transport counterparts, most of these models are still transportable, but you may need an SUV or a full-sized sedan with a very large trunk. If you have neither, it is possible to buy aftermarket accessories that will allow you to affix your wheelchair to the back of your vehicle for transport.

While they are somewhat less convenient in terms of moving them from place to place, they are much more robust and can be (but aren’t always) more comfortable than Transport Chairs, being designed for spending extended periods sitting in them.

Within this product class, you’ll find a wide range of chairs, from those designed exclusively for indoor use, those designed for mixed indoor/outdoor use, and adventure chairs designed to allow you to go far off the beaten track and traverse most any type of terrain.

A large image of Medline K4 Basic Manual Wheelchair

You’ll find manual wheelchairs available at just about every price range but generally speaking, they occupy the middle ground in the market, being more expensive than Transport Chairs but less expensive than electric wheelchairs and other types of mobility scooters.

Electric Wheelchairs 

The big drawback of manual wheelchairs is that your range in them is limited by your personal stamina, or the availability of a trusty assistant to provide a helping push to get you where you want to go. Unfortunately, not everybody has tremendous stamina or access to an assistant on a reliable basis. For those people, the electric wheelchair is a godsend.

An image of Karman-Xo202 Electric Wheelchair

Yes, they’re more expensive than their manually powered cousins, but you get a tremendous boost in freedom and independence. You’re no longer limited by the power of your arms to get you where you want to go, and you don’t have to beg someone to give you a push. You get in your chair and just drive! That’s fabulous, and it explains much of the appeal of products in this class.

As with their manual cousins, electric wheelchairs can be found in a broad range of prices and are offered in a staggering array of configurations optimized for various uses, including:

  • Beach chairs
  • Indoor use
  • Mixed indoor/outdoor use
  • Adventure chairs
  • Tracked chairs that look a bit like convertible tanks
  • Ruggedized chairs optimized exclusively for outdoor use

Ultimately, there are no right answers here. It’s merely a question of which type of chair best meets your specific needs at a price you can afford. If you’d like a deeper look at the various options available, be sure to check out our extensive collection of roundup reviews. 

Customization Options and Accessories


Once you’ve taken careful measurements to right-size your chair and determined which type is best for you, you’re in a position to make your initial purchase. Assuming you’ve done your due diligence and your measurements are true, whatever chair you acquire will serve you well, but there’s more to the equation than just that. The chair itself is just the beginning.

The reality is that once you buy the chair and have been using it for a while, you’re bound to start realizing and running up against its limitations. You’re going to want to customize and personalize. The good news is that there are all sorts of ways to do that.

Where customization and personalization are concerned, there are a staggering array of options available.

If the chair you bought doesn’t have enough onboard storage for you, you can find a variety of third-party storage devices available that can be mounted to your chair. If you need more lumbar support or extra padding to make your chair more comfortable, you can get that.

After a few years of use, if you find yourself needing to replace your well-worn wheels, that’s easy to do. You can even find conversion kits for both manual and electric wheelchairs that allow you to turn your indoor use wheelchair into an all-terrain or beach wheelchair if you like.

You can also buy things like:

  • Cup Holders
  • Oxygen Tank Holders
  • Umbrella Holders
  • Anti-Tippers if your wheelchair didn’t come with them (many do)
  • Brake Extensions

The best part about all of this is you don’t have to make any decisions right away. You can use your chair for a while and get accustomed to it and then, as you run up against limitations you decide you can’t live with, you can buy upgrades and improvements incrementally, which spreads the costs out over time.

Here are a few helpful links to get you started when it comes to accessories:

Note: It’s worth mentioning that whatever company you buy your wheelchair from, odds are excellent that they make and sell at least some accessories for their chairs (this is especially true of companies that sell electric wheelchairs), so that should always be your starting point, as you’re guaranteed that these accessories will fit whatever chair you have.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for, by all means, expand your search to include third-party sellers, who tend to offer a much wider range of accessories.

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