If your ability to walk is severely affected, a wheelchair may be just what you need.
It can help you to get out and about and continue to have a social life, visit family, go shopping and go to work.
The mobility that a wheelchair will give you can help you to take part in community activities such as practising your faith, volunteering, fundraising, local fairs and coffee mornings. Or simply just help you to visit friends.
This is an overview of what to think about if you are considering getting a wheelchair.
A manual wheelchair is a good option if you need a wheelchair all or most of the time, indoors and outdoors, to enable you to move about.
Also suitable if you can walk a bit, but not over longer distances, so need to use a manual chair when you go out.
- have smaller back wheels, making them lighter and easier to transport
- but you have to have a willing helper to push you. This can compromise your independence
- have large back wheels, and these wheels have a push rim that you turn to control and move the chair
- you need to have sufficient strength and movement in your arms to be able to push the wheels yourself
- they can be bulkier, so are less easy to transport in your car.
- look for one with ‘quick release’ wheels which makes it easier to manoeuvre
- most have push handles where someone else can give a hand if you need additional help (e.g. high kerbs, rough terrain, or a steep hill) – or you’re just tired
- if you frequently need help then an attendant-propelled chair is usually easier to push for a helper
Electric (sometimes called 'powered') wheelchairs
You may want to choose an electric wheelchair if you don’t have the strength or stamina to push yourself and don’t want to rely on someone else.
They are also useful if you want to take longer journeys in your wheelchair.
Electric wheelchairs come in 3 main categories:
- indoor/portable – for use at home, or in places with smooth, even surfaces, such as shopping malls. They are
usually designed to be transportable, and will fold to go in a car
- outdoor – with larger wheels for dealing with uneven surfaces. They have suspension to make the ride more comfortable. Can be tricky to use indoors as they may be too big to fit through doorways. Also think about where you will store it if it can’t be stored inside. Do you have a waterproof shed or garage?
- hybrid (indoor/outdoor) – balance of features so that you can use it most places you want to go. But there are compromises – won’t be as light and portable as indoor wheelchairs, or as comfortable and hard-wearing as an all-terrain type of wheelchair.
Electric wheelchairs are usually operated by a joystick on one of the armrests, but if that isn’t suitable some manufacturers will offer other options so that you can get something that will suit your needs and preferences.
For example, a handlebar type control (similar to a mobility scooter). See this article for a range of different options.
If a joystick won’t work for you, it’s worth talking with the manufacturers or suppliers about different options.
Some of the main things you need to consider when choosing a wheelchair:
Seat size. Too small and it’ll be uncomfortable. Too wide and you could slide around.
Overall comfort. If you are going to be in it for several hours a day, then you need to be comfortable.
This includes making sure the wheelchair helps you maintain good posture, and that the back support is good.
Also that the armrests are in the right place for you, and that your feet and legs are supported adequately, and in a comfortable position.
If the chair is uncomfortable it could lead to muscle problems.
When you will use the wheelchair. This is a very important consideration – you want to get something that will meet your needs.
For example if you travel a lot you’ll want something portable and lightweight.
But if you plan to do exercises or sports in your wheelchair, you may need a specialist model.
Your weight. Make sure the chair that you buy has a suitable user weight limit. There are chairs available to suit all weights, and it’s only safe to use a chair that is designed for your weight.
Power supply. You charge the batteries via a battery charger which goes into an ordinary electric socket. It’s better if you can leave your wheelchair by the socket overnight, so it can be charging ready for the next day
How to purchase a wheelchair
If you need to use a wheelchair all the time, then the NHS may fund it for you.
In order to access NHS funding, you organise a needs assessment through your Local Authority. If you go to your Local Authority website, it will give you details on how to do this.
Criteria for eligibility varies from area to area, and there may be a waiting list.
The good points are that if you are assessed as needing a wheelchair, then the NHS loans this to you, which means that they are responsible for its maintenance and repairs.
Alternatively, if you receive the higher mobility component of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) then you can access the Motability scheme. You can put some or all of your PIP towards a electric wheelchair (or a mobility scooter if you prefer). You hire the wheelchair through the scheme for three years.
Motability is also available to people receiving the war pensioners’ mobility supplement.
If you decide to buy a wheelchair yourself, there are many options – both online and through local suppliers. But it is very important to get the right one for you, to make sure that it’s comfortable and that it meets your needs, and will enable you to do what you want to do.
One of the best ways to try out a wheelchair is to go to a local disabled living centre. Click here for a list of centres in central and northern England.
Your local authority should be able to tell you the nearest centre to where you live.
When you go to a centre, you will be able to try out a range of equipment, and many have different types of terrain for you to try, to see how you can manage. If there isn’t a centre near you, larger mobility shops have a range of equipment in stock, and will usually let you try it out before you buy.
Take your time making a decision, and try out several options before buying. This will help you get the right wheelchair for you.
If you find a wheelchair that you like, but it doesn’t quite meet your needs, then ask if it can be modified in any way. Many manufacturers offer a range of options, so it is always worth asking.
Once you’ve decided what you want, it is worth shopping around (online and locally) to see where you can get the best price. The same equipment can vary from one place to another.
Not sure if a wheelchair is right for you? Resisting the idea of using one?
Why not ease yourself into the idea gently? For example, many shopping centres, supermarkets and tourist attractions have wheelchairs that visitors can borrow. Try using one there and see how you get on. Or join a Shopmobility scheme and borrow one for a day’s shopping. Or hire one for a week or two and see how you manage with it.
You may find that it’s a little bit strange at first. And perhaps a bit scary! But once you see how much a wheelchair enhances your life, enabling you to do things you’ve stopped doing, then you could decide it is the right thing for you. Alternatively you may think a mobility scooter may better suit your needs.