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Thirty years ago there was no need for a "fact sheet" on manual wheelchairs. Someone needing a wheelchair at that time simply would have gone to a doctor and received a prescription for a wheelchair, and that chair would have been fairly standard in size and appearance. It would have been a heavy, metal chair with black or dark green upholstery. Nothing else was available. That era has passed, and today's active wheelchair user has literally hundreds of options available. Manual wheelchairs come in sporty styles and stylish colors, and can be made of lightweight composite materials which greatly reduce their weight.
The challenge today is to select the wheelchair which most directly meets an individual's needs. The objective of this Fact Sheet is to provide the reader with a basic introduction to manual wheelchairs. Sources of additional information, including a list of wheelchair manufacturers, are found at the conclusion of this fact sheet.
Click on the links below for more information and specifics:
1. Types of Manual Wheelchairs
Because the wheelchair market is changing so rapidly, there is no universally accepted terminology to describe the various kinds of manual wheelchairs. However, manual wheelchairs sold today generally can be placed in one or more of the following categories:
- Lightweight/Sports Chairs
- The most popular type of wheelchair for everyday use for a person with good upper body mobility is the lightweight manual wheelchair. Lightweight chairs provide maximum independence of movement with a minimum of effort. Many active wheelchair users also prefer the sportier look of the lightweights compared with the more standard looking everyday chair. It should be noted, however, that heavy or obese persons may be unable to use these types of chairs because the lighter weight of the frame results in a reduced user capacity as compared to standard everyday chairs. Once used primarily by wheelchair athletes, the lightweight chair today is used by people in virtually all walks of life as a preferred mode of assisted mobility. Three-wheeled chairs, also developed for such sports as tennis and basketball, are also an everyday chair alternative.
- Standard/Everyday Chairs
- Some wheelchair users still prefer or require a standard wheelchair, which is characterized by a cross-brace frame, built-in or removable arm rests, swing-away footrests, a mid- to high-level back, and push handles to allow non-occupants to propel the chair.
- Child / Junior Chairs
- Children and young adults need chairs that can accommodate their changing needs as they grow. In addition, it is important that wheelchairs for children or teens be adaptable to classroom environments and be "friendly looking" to help the user fit more readily into social situations. Manufacturers today are becoming increasingly sensitive to these market demands and are attempting to address them with innovative chair designs and a variety of "kid-oriented" colors and styles. (See also Fact Sheet on Wheelchairs for Children.)
- Specialty Chairs
- Because of the diverse needs of wheelchair users, wheelchairs have been designed to accommodate many lifestyles and user needs. Hemi chairs, which are lower to the floor than standard chairs, allow the user to propel the chair using leg strength. Chairs that can be propelled by one hand are available for people who have paralysis on one side. Oversized chairs and chairs designed to accommodate the weight of obese people are also offered. Rugged, specially equipped chairs are available for outdoor activities. Aerodynamic three-wheeled racing chairs are used in marathons and other racing events. Manual chairs that raise the user to a standing position are available for people who need to be able to stand at their jobs, or who want to stand as part of their physical conditioning routine. These and other specialized chair designs generally are manufactured by independent wheelchair manufacturers who are trying to meet the needs of specific target markets.
- Institutional / Nursing Home / Depot Chair
- The least expensive type of chair available, an institutional chair, is designed for institutional usage only, such as transporting patients in hospitals or nursing homes. It is not an appropriate alternative for anyone who requires independent movement, as the institutional chair is not fitted for a specific individual. These types of chairs are now also used as rental chairs and by commercial enterprises (such as grocery stores and airports) for temporary use.
2. Wheelchair Components
- One of the biggest breakthroughs in wheelchair technology has been the development of new, lightweight materials for wheelchair frames. Whereas stainless steel used to be the only frame material available, wheelchair users today have their choice of stainless steel, chrome, aluminum, airplane aluminum, steel tubing, an alloy of chrome and lightweight materials, titanium, and other lightweight composite materials. The type of material used to construct the frame affects the weight of the frame, and therefore the overall weight of the wheelchair. The type of frame material also can affect the wheelchair's overall strength. The two most common types of frames currently available are rigid frame chairs (where the frame remains in one piece and the wheels are released for storage or travel), and the standard cross-brace frame (which enables the frame to fold for transport or storage).
- Upholstery for wheelchairs must withstand daily use in all kinds of weather. Consequently, manufacturers provide a variety of options to users, ranging from cloth to new synthetic fabrics to leather. Many manufacturers also offer a selection of upholstery colors, ranging from black to neon, to allow for individual selection and differing tastes among consumers.
- Seating System
- Seating systems are sold separately from the wheelchairs themselves, as seating must be chosen on an individual basis. It is important when selecting a wheelchair or a seating system to ensure that the two components are compatible.
- "Braking" on a manual wheelchair in use is accomplished by applying the hands on the wheels. However, "parking brakes" (wheel locks) are available in several different designs, and can be mounted at various heights to maximize convenience to the user.
- Most wheelchairs use four wheels, with two large wheels at the back and two smaller ones (casters) at the front. The standard tyre used for the rear wheels on most wheelchairs is a pneumatic tyre, for which the standard size is 24 inches. Smaller and larger sizes, however, also are available. Many manufacturers now also offer other types of tyres--such as solid tyres, semi-pneumatic, or radial tyres--at extra cost. Mag wheels and off road wheels also are options on some chairs. Casters, too, vary in size (ranging from three to eight inches in diameter) and composition (pneumatic, solid rubber, plastic, or a combination of these).
- For rigid frame chairs, footrests usually are incorporated into the frame of the chair as part of the design. Cross-brace folding chairs often have footrests which swivel, flip up, and/or can be removed.
- Many lightweight manual chairs are designed to be used without armrests. The absence of armrests makes it easier for the user to roll up to a desk or table, and many active wheelchair users prefer the streamlined look of a chair with no armrests. However, armrests are helpful if the user has difficulty with upper body balance while seated. Armrests come in a variety of styles including desk length (to allow the user closer access to desks and tables) or full length and both types may be flip-up, fixed, or detachable.
3. Cost of Manual Wheelchairs
- Cost of Manual Wheelchairs
- The cost of a manual wheelchair can start from approximately R2 400.00 for an institutional chair to more than R65 000.00 for a customized lightweight wheelchair with "all the trimmings." Most lightweight manual chairs, depending upon the manufacturer, are in the R12 000.00 to R65 000.00 range. These figures should not be used, however, to suggest an "appropriate price" for a wheelchair for any specific individual; special accessory needs or customization required to accommodate specific disabilities could put the actual purchase price much higher.