Choosing a wheelchair

Choosing a wheelchair can be a daunting experience. You may be looking for one for yourself, or, as in my case, searching for one for someone else. There are so many to choose from and your particular needs will dictate the sort of chair you end up buying. Some of you will be waiting for government funding approval for the creation of a chair which exactly meets your needs, whilst others simply want to find something suitable for yourself or someone who is only going to be using the chair occasionally. If you are in the latter category, then there are shops specialising in assistive devices and many pharmacies, hospitals and

local specialist stores may have what you need. Another option is to search for items with stores online or with e-bay.

A short while back, I needed to help someone with a fairly limited budget find a suitable wheelchair. Considerable research into wheelchairs ensued. This included visiting retail options, as well as an internet search. This gave us an idea of price range and the sort of features on offer.  In the process, I learned that choosing a wheelchair is rather like having a suit made for you. When parting with your hard-earned cash, there are many options and you must choose carefully, if you want to end up with the perfect wheelchair for you.

Eventually, we found a manual wheelchair which  It met the following requirements which helped us determine that it was the right chair for us.

  • light, including all of its separate parts, making it easy to lift

  • quick to dismantle (the chair back folded down, the feet supports lifted off and main wheels came off at the push of a button)

  • quick to reassemble (I could do the whole thing in less than 30 seconds)

  • would fit in the back of a small car boot

  • was responsive and easy for the person in the chair (if physically able), or an assistant to steer

  • brakes for large wheels which could be easily operated by the person in the chair or an assistant

  • less than A$500.

It also had the additional useful features:

  • swing-away footrests with back ankle support straps (good for not having the feet slip off the footrests and good for moving out of the way when wanting to put feet on the ground or for getting in close to a table when there is a central table support).

  • removable or swing-away arm rests (sometimes you want to get closer to the table)

  • circular hand grips on the outside of each large wheel for self-steering


It wasn't perfect. The back pocket on the chair back was very tight, making it difficult to use and there was no real foot leverage behind the chair. This meant that it was difficult to have much control, if trying to gently tip someone backwards in their chair, when going over a door lip or up or down a step, for instance. However, the price was right, getting the chair in and out of a small car was ridiculously fast and easy and it steered very nicely when out and about.


The following are probably all things you might want to consider, when putting together your own wish list:

  • Do you want a powered chair? Powered chairs are usually expensive but have the advantage that they are sometimes the solution, enabling greater independence for those with very limited physical movement. Some chairs even climb steps or raise the user up to have access to more than one height. If choosing a powered chair, you will be using one or all of the following in order to get about:

    • accessible public transport

    • maxi taxis

    • your own specially adjusted transport

    • the streets and footpaths nearest where you live and shop

  • Made to order or off the rack? For a price, it is possible to have a wheelchair created for you which will exactly meet your criteria. Bear in mind that this can take months, so would not be an option if you were in a hurry to purchase.

  • Do you want a manual chair? Styles vary enormously, both in options and strength. They can be made from steel, aluminium, titanium or even carbon fibre. Both rigid and folding styles are available. Rigid styles have greater strength and can be easier for someone with a disability to operate. Folding styles where the seat collapses and the sides of the chair squeeze up together are good for when an assistant is going to need to do most of the work with pushing the chair and getting it into and out of a standard vehicle, but are not as strong or supportive for extended use. Some wheelchairs are designed to be pushed only. Others have a circular grab bar on the outside of the wheel which allows the user to manoeuvre themselves. Some wheelchairs are specifically designed for sport and speed. There is even one designed for beach access, which can be taken into the waves and an off-road version designed for bumpier terrain. See our article on beach wheelchairs, if you want specific information on where to find them in Australia.

  • Will chair size be an issue? Powered wheelchairs can be quite wide, so check the areas you plan to use it, (including passageways, ramps and door frames), to see if this will be an issue.

  • What other physical support features will you want on your chair? (Head, foot, arm or leg supports for example).

  • What is your back up plan if you choose a powered wheelchair? If the battery pack fails and you don't have a back-up, you may be stuck for several days until the problem is fixed.

  • Where will you be able to use it? If you plan to travel around in your powered chair, check first as to whether you have easy access to local public transport, (trains, buses or maxi taxis), shops, movies, or anywhere else you hope to go. If you don't need to be in one all the time and depending on your circumstances, it might be easier to catch a taxi to the shops, having booked a free manual chair or powered scooter, which are often available at major shopping centres.

  • What about chair weight? Will anyone need to be lifting all, or parts of your chair? I can't stress enough the importance of the weight of the chair parts, if you are hoping to buy one which can be easily dismantled to go in the boot of a car. The long-term health and resilience of the person required to do all this lifting, putting together and dismantling may depend on it. Whether it is the person with the disability who will be doing this , or an able-bodied assistant, it is likely that the person putting the wheelchair together will need to do so a minimum of three times. The first time will be prior to the trip and the second will be upon reaching the destination. The third will be when arriving back home again. In addition this person will also need to dismantle the wheelchair at least twice and all of the wheelchair parts will be lifted and manhandled each time. Of course, each additional time that you depart from and return to the vehicle during an outing will increase these processes by a factor of two.

    Speaking as one who is of slight build and assists someone to go out on a regular basis, I can tell you that doing all of this with a heavy wheelchair, or one that is awkward to dismantle, can quite easily lead to.....repetitive strain injury, a short temper, exhaustion and a disinclination to repeat the experience. On the other hand, the right chair can make for a pleasant, relatively effortless experience, both for the person in the chair and anyone assisting.

  • Dismantling, reassembling and fold-up size. If you intend to drive or be driven to the shops, does your chair dismantle and reassemble easily and will all the parts fit neatly into the vehicle you'll be using? Check to see if you or the person who will most likely be assisting, is able to do all of these things. If the chair you want is large and bulky and the car you plan to travel in is small, then you might have a problem. Many of the new cars on the market are designed for boot and back seat flexibility, with seats which can be removed for more room. However, even if your vehicle has plenty of space for a bulky wheelchair, the size of the chair when dismantled will still be something you need to think about if you want to travel regularly with more people than just the driver.

This list is not exhaustive. Perhaps you'd like to contribute your own experience and ideas on this subject. Just register with us on the home page and then click on our blog section to share your information with other interested browsers!