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Choosing An Active User Wheelchair

With a wide array of models available from many different manufacturers, and big decisions to make such as rigid or folding, aluminium, titanium or carbon fibre, choosing the right active user wheelchair may initially seem a daunting decision. However, a few simple decisions can usually narrow down the selection substantially, and we have written this guide to help you with that. Please bear in mind that our experienced product specialists are always available to discuss your options over the phone, and can carry out a home demonstration and assessment to ensure you get the right wheelchair.

Experience

The first thing to consider when picking an active user wheelchair is your level of experience. If you are new to self-propelling, it can take a while - often around a year or more - to work out your best seating set-up. This means that beginners will usually want a highly adjustable model such as the Life series that allows a high degree of post-supply alterations to accommodate your changing seating needs. Similarly your driving skills will develop with time, so an adjustable chair will let you change the profile from a stability-focused position to a much more active and efficient "tippy" setup as your skills improve.

More experienced wheelchair users usually know their ideal setup so need less adjustments - often just some minimal fine-tuning is needed, allowing the chair to be lighter. For those with several years of experience, a bespoke welded frame is the ultimate choice - while allowing no margin for corrections, it is the lightest option, allowing you to propel further and faster.

Weight

One of the most crucial factors when picking a wheelchair is its weight. After all, the heavier the wheelchair, the more you have to push around with you. Much of this is discussed in the below three sections (transport, folding or rigid, frame material) as those tie in to the weight of the chair. Many products list two different weights - the "transport weight", which reflects how the wheelchair will most commonly be lifted (cushion and wheels removed), and the "overall weight" which reflects what you'll be propelling around. Bear in mind that advertised weights tend to be based off very small seat sizes, and the lightest options available on the chair (some of which will be cost options). If you need a larger frame, or armrests and so on, the weight will be increased.

The lightest wheelchair currently in our range is the carbon fibre Quickie Krypton R, with a transport weight that starts at a mere 3.65 kg.

Transport

Traditionally, folding wheelchairs are perceived as more transportable, and they are therefore a popular choice for carers or family members to fold up and put in a car. They also have the advantage of taking up limited space in your house when not in use.

However, rigid wheelchairs can potentially be extremely transportable - more so even than folding ones. Most higher end ones can have folding backrests that lock down, and with the quick release wheels popped off this makes them incredibly compact - this allows the wheelchair user to lift them easily over their body and onto a passenger or rear seat (they will also fit into the back of most cars). Significantly lighter than folding wheelchairs, they often allow the wheelchair user to independently drive and transport their own wheelchair without needing assistance.

If you are wishing to use your chair for occupied transport in a vehicle - whether your own WAV or community transport such as a minibus - you will need a Crash Tested one. Most chairs are crash tested with transit brackets able to be attached for strapping the wheelchair down.

Folding or Rigid

As discussed above, transportability is a key factor when deciding between a folding or rigid wheelchair. However, this decision has a big impact on performance too. Rigid wheelchairs offer much improved efficiency, with less of your energy input lost to "flex" in the frame, also helped by being much lighter, with equivalent folding chairs usually being at least a couple of kilos heavier. Roughly 75% of active user wheelchairs are rigid ones, and we generally recommend opting for one unless there is a particular requirement for it to be folded.

Frame Material

The traditional frame material for active wheelchairs is aluminium, which is light and durable. There are different "grades" of aluminium, and high end chairs will often feature aircraft-grade aluminium alloys, which are particularly strong - allowing the frame tubing to be thinner, thus saving weight. For those using powered add-ons, aluminium is generally considered to be the most suitable frame material.

Some wheelchairs are available in Titanium too - being a stronger material than aluminium, less of it needs to be used when building the frame, resulting in a lighter wheelchair. It doesn't rust or corrode, and has exceptional fatigue resistance - giving you outstanding durability and longevity. It also dampens vibration, which is an increasingly prominent consideration - although some manufacturers such as Sunrise Medical no longer make titanium wheelchairs, believing it is too energy inefficient given the higher levels of flex in the frame. Titanium is also a more expensive material than aluminium, so titanium wheelchairs can cost significantly more than equivalent aluminium ones.

Carbon fibre is the lightest and most premium material available for wheelchairs - five times stronger than steel, twice as stiff, yet far lighter and extremely durable. It tends only to be used for the highest-end, lightest models, which have limited potential for adjustments compared to aluminium ones, so is better suited to experienced wheelchair users.

Seating Requirements

The essentials to check are simple - make sure the wheelchair can comfortably take your weight (some leeway is always best), and if you are heavier look for ones that can be built in larger seat widths (such as 20 inches / 51 cm). If you are at risk of pressure sores, then any active user wheelchair can have a pressure cushion fitted - if you have advanced clinical needs then we would recommend an assessment from an Occupational Therapist.

While most wheelchairs come with low fabric backrests as standard, should you require more postural support, look out for ones that can be fitted with more advanced backrests such as the Jay and Matrx range. There are a vast range of seating requirements that people can have - whether that be particular leg angles, supportive armrests, or the addition of lateral supports to maintain an upright position. Active user chairs are highly configurable, bespoke built to your requirements following an assessment, so most chairs can be built to accommodate these. However, some of the highest end chairs actually feature less options than middle of the range ones, so might not accommodate every requirement. Given the sheer range of requirements and options, we would recommend discussing your seating needs with one of our product specialists.

As discussed above, if your condition may change over time, we would recommend a model with good levels of adjustability to accommodate this.

Vibration Dampening

This aspect of wheelchairs is becoming increasingly prominent, particularly for those with spinal injuries and back conditions. If you are sitting in your wheelchair for much of the day, the vibrations and impacts from propelling around can have a significant impact on your body. The frame material can have an impact on this (for example titanium frames are known for dampening vibration) - however, the frame design is just as important. There are wheelchairs close to entering the market (such as Ki Mobility's forthcoming Ethos) that are designed wholly around minimising vibrations, providing a smooth ride and dampening any movements of your body.

Alternatively, options such as Frogs Legs castor forks provide some suspension to a key part of the chair, isolating you from jolts and shocks - most high-end chairs have the option for these.

Transfers

If you are transferring forwards, the footrests are the most important consideration. Typically a rigid chair will have a fixed front frame with central footplate, while folding chairs have separate swing-away legrests - clearing the space in front of your chair to transfer. However, some rigid (e.g. the Life R) and folding chairs (e.g. the Xenon2) have the options for either. Additionally, some fixed front frames can have a flip-back footrest that leaves space in front for transfers.

The seat height is also important to enable transfers to chairs, beds and vehicles - while also ensuring you have access under tables or desks. Wheelchairs can usually be built with a range of seat heights to fit your environment.

Usage

Active user wheelchairs are generally designed for paved, solid surfaces - pavements, shops, homes and offices, though they can also manage firm even pathways. However, they can do much more, when set up in the right way. If you're looking to traverse rougher ground, add-on devices are often crucial (see below). Nonetheless, there are options such as chunky mountain-bike tyres that will give far better traction than the slick road ones found as standard on most chairs.

If you often need to navigate tight indoor spaces, then a chair with a compact frame angle, and inset front end can help ensure you remain as manoeuvrable as possible. This tends to be found on higher-end chairs such as the Rogue and Helium; more basic models have less compact angles and insets.

Add-Ons and Power Drives

The popularity of wheelchair add-ons has grown massively in recent years. These range from basic freewheel-type attachments that lift your front castors off the ground and provide better off-road traction, to powered rear wheels (either controlled like a powerchair as with Alber's E-Fix, or power-assisting each stroke as with the popular E-Motion wheels), and handbikes (both manual and powered, such as the Quickie Attitude). New devices are hitting the market regularly, such as Alber's Smoov One that lets you easily switch between a full-on manual self-propelled chair, to a fully powered one.

The wide range of add-ons fulfil a similarly wide range of functions - but the key ones are to allow you to take your wheelchair on rougher ground, and to provide motor power to help you out with getting around. This can be particularly useful for those with limited muscle strength or dexterity.

Not every add-on is suitable for every type of wheelchair, so make sure you enquire before buying.

Appearance

Wheelchairs have moved on a long way from the old days of chunky grey metal, with nuts and bolts everywhere. People want to look good, and their wheelchair is no exception - particularly if you're out and about in it all day. Wheelchair manufacturers put a lot of effort into making their products look good, and most can be customised with a range of contrasting colours and sporty frames. While appearance is very much subjective, it must be noted that the Quickie range has long been considered a league-leader in the looks department.

Sports

If you are looking for a wheelchair for sports use, it is recommended to get a separate one from your everyday wheelchair - as anything other than the most casual of sports tends to punish a wheelchair, and you need one designed to withstand these unique rigours. We do not currently supply sports wheelchairs.

Children

There are some unique considerations to bear in mind with paediatric wheelchairs. For both young children and teenagers, picking a wheelchair with in-built growth is crucial - you don't want to be buying a new wheelchair every year, and it's crucial they're able to constantly provide a perfect fit.

Safety and stability are also key - you want your child to develop independence, but in a way that ensures their safety. Look out for options such as the Zippie Youngster 3 and Simba's safe-to-operate safari brake, or the Little Wave Clik's unique dynamic fifth wheel. The latter is particularly good at letting children improve their wheelchair skills in safety, without limiting their access the way that traditional anti-tip wheels do.

Our full range of active user wheelchairs can be viewed on our Products page, and the individual product listings contain in-depth descriptions of the features, as well as detailing product specifications and a number of pictures.

If after reading this guide, you need further assistance in choosing a wheelchair, please don’t hesitate to contact our product specialists who will be able discuss your options with you. We can book an appointment for you to see a product specialist, who will be able to talk you over the various products available, assess your requirements, and advise on which would be most suitable. They can then demonstrate our range of products to you, giving you the opportunity to try out a range of equipment. This will allow you to experience our wheelchairs first-hand, an invaluable experience when making up your mind which to get.