How to Choose a Wheelchair

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 11, 2021
4 min read

Wheelchairs are mobility aids that can greatly improve your quality of life. Choosing the right one according to your needs is important to help you get around and do the things you enjoy.

If you think you need a wheelchair, talk to your doctor or your physical therapist. They will refer you for a wheelchair assessment. Several things should be considered. An assessment will help make sure a wheelchair is right for you and help you figure out which type you should use. Things to consider during wheelchair assessment include:

After your assessment, you’ll have a recommendation for the type of chair to use. Before you go shopping, there are a few things to think about to narrow down the style and options you want. These include:

  • Will you be pushing your chair yourself, or will someone be pushing you?
  • If you’re pushing the chair yourself, will you need a power option?
  • How often will you use it?
  • Do you need cushions to prevent pressure ulcers?
  • Do you need to tilt or recline?
  • Will you be going outdoors?
  • Are you an athlete? Do you need a sports wheelchair?
  • How often will you be transporting your chair?
  • What does your insurance cover?

With these questions answered, you can start to figure out what type of chair will likely be best for you.

There are two main types of wheelchairs: manual and electric. Each type has lots of different options, styles, accessories, and pros and cons.

Manual wheelchairs are chairs that you push yourself, but they usually have handles on the back so someone else can push you if it's needed. These are often used if you:

  • Can walk with a walking stick or walker but need a chair for longer distances or when you’re running errands
  • Have the upper body strength and mobility to propel your chair
  • Need a wheelchair most or all of the time
  • Have strong sitting balance and stability

There are many types of manual wheelchairs.  You can find basic wheelchairs, transport chairs, folding chairs, lightweight and ultra-lightweight chairs, and sports chairs.

Manual wheelchairs. These chairs usually have larger back wheels to help you control and move the chair forward. This can make the chair bulky and awkward to store in your trunk. Many manual chairs now come with quick-release wheels, which makes it easier to store. This can be helpful if you want an ultra-lightweight chair.

Lightweight and ultra-lightweight wheelchairs. These chairs have rigid frames, which allows more force in the forward motion. This means that the chair doesn’t fold, so quick release wheels are helpful.

Transport wheelchairs. Transport chairs are great if you don’t use a chair often and someone else is pushing you. They have smaller back wheels, which makes it tougher to get around obstacles by yourself.

Electric or power wheelchairs use a battery-operated motor. You control the chair with a joystick. These chairs are useful if:

  • You don’t have the strength or endurance to push a chair.
  • You need to get around but don’t want to rely on someone to push you.
  • You have significant mobility loss or disability.
  • You need to add adaptive accessories like a respirator or a speech device.
  • You need to recline or position your body.
  • You want to use it on sidewalks or roads to go long distances.

There are many options. They range from portable indoor wheelchairs that are good on smooth floors to outdoor chairs with specialized tracks or wheels for uneven terrain.

Portable indoor chairs are foldable and can usually be stored in the trunk of your car. Power chairs tend to be heavy and harder to transport. You might find it hard to get power chairs through doorways, and you might need to use an adapted van for transport.

Power chairs are also expensive to repair. They tend to break down more often than manual wheelchairs.

Wheelchairs have improved a lot over the years, but it may still be hard to find the perfect wheelchair that does everything you need it to do. An occupational therapist can help you sort through all the options. They can help you customize your chair to fit your body.

You might find you need other accessories, including:

  • Saddle bags for storing your belongings
  • Seat cushions — foam, gel, or air-filled
  • Headrest
  • Power pack to add to your manual chair
  • Spare power chair battery
  • Frog legs for suspension

Finding the right wheelchair can make all the difference, but it takes time. Working with a therapist can help take the stress out of wheelchair shopping.