Wheelchairs serve as a saving grace for approximately two million Americans to help carry out day-to-day tasks, many of whom would be unable to live or function independently without them. In this comprehensive guide, we'll show you how to go about finding a wheelchair that best meets your needs and reveal the 10 best wheelchairs of 2018.
WHEELCHAIR BUYING GUIDE
If you or a loved one suffers from impaired mobility, a wheelchair can provide increased freedom and an improved quality of life. Today's wheelchairs come with a wide range of features that allow you to customize the device to your specific needs. The following is an overview of the most popular types of wheelchairs on the market as well as factors to consider when choosing a wheelchair.
What Are Wheelchairs?
Wheelchairs come in various shapes, sizes, and configurations, but they're all essentially wheeled mobility devices that allow you to sit and propel yourself manually, with the aid of a caregiver, or by an automated system. If you're limited in your mobility due to a physical or psychological illness, injury, or disability, wheelchairs can offer you greater freedom and independence (source).
Types of Wheelchairs
Modern technology has made it possible to create wheelchairs for virtually any situation or need, including chairs specifically designed for athletic and all-terrain use. The following looks at the most popular types of wheelchairs (source):
As the name implies, non-electric or manual wheelchairs are propelled by pushing the wheels with your hands or by a caregiver using the handles on the back of the chair. Since there are no motorized or electronic parts, these chairs are easy to maintain, relatively inexpensive, and lightweight for easy transport and storage. In the absence of a caregiver, you must have sufficient upper-body strength, mobility, and stamina to propel yourself.
Transport wheelchairs are the lightest and most portable manual wheelchair models. Unlike standard wheelchairs that feature large rear wheels to help propel yourself, these devices have four small wheels and require the help of a caregiver. You can find these wheelchairs often used in hospitals, medical offices, airports, and malls. They're suitable if you only need a wheelchair when shopping or other situations that entail a lot of walking.
Ultra-lightweight manual wheelchairs are specifically designed to be able to compete in sports, such as basketball, tennis, or marathons. These chairs have a low center of gravity for increased stability and allow you to stop or change directions quickly.
Power or electric wheelchairs are propelled by a battery and motor, allowing you to control the speed and direction of the device using a push button or joystick. These devices are suited for those with limited upper-body strength and mobility and can be customized for a wide range of needs. For example, some models of electric wheelchairs can easily travel on gravel, raise up to allow you to reach shelves, or even climb stairs.
The motor, battery, and heavy-duty frame make these devices quite heavy, so they're not as portable as manual models. The sophisticated technology also means a higher price tag and more maintenance.
Power-assist wheelchairs are a cross between a manual wheelchair and a fully powered one. These devices are largely self-propelled but have software-driven motors that intuitively respond to the amount of pressure applied to the wheels. This functionality helps reduce fatigue when traveling long distances and allows for more control when traveling over uneven terrain and down inclines.
What to Look for in a Wheelchair
Whether you intend to use a wheelchair for full-time or occasional use, it's important to find one with the right combination of features for your physical needs and lifestyle:
Where, when, and how often you use your wheelchair is perhaps the primary consideration when making your selection:
Footrests – The majority of wheelchairs come with either fixed or removable footrests. In most cases, removable footrests are preferable as they make it easier to get out of the chair or transfer to a bed. If you have swelling or poor circulation in your legs, you may want to consider a model with legrests that elevate up to 90 degrees.
Armrests – Adjustable and desk-length armrests allow you to get closer to tables and desks while flip-back or removable armrests make it easier to get into and out of the chair. If you plan to spend considerable time in your wheelchair, you may want to consider a model where the armrests have extra padding. You can also buy lambskin covers to make the armrests more comfortable.
Fabric – Most wheelchair seats are covered in vinyl, nylon, or fabric. While fabric is typically the most comfortable, quality vinyl is easier to clean and more durable. Nylon seats are extremely durable but you'll probably want an added cushion to improve the comfort level.
Brakes – If you plan to use your wheelchair outdoors in areas with inclines and various types of terrain, you may want to consider a wheelchair with a braking system that allows you to slow down or stop suddenly if necessary (not to be confused with the wheel locks that hold the chair in park while exiting or transferring from the chair).
All fully electric wheelchairs can be slowed or stopped with a simple move of a button or joystick. If these types of wheelchairs fall outside your price range, the technology in power-assist wheelchairs will also allow you to slow down or stop by applying slight pressure to the wheels (source).
Most standard wheelchairs have a weight capacity of 200 to 250 pounds. Heavy-duty and bariatric models with reinforced frames and wider seats are available for larger individuals — some supporting up to 700 pounds. Of course, these chairs are more expensive and heavier, which makes them harder to transport.
Height, Width, and Depth of Seat
Both manual and electric wheelchairs come in various widths to accommodate different body types. The standard seat height for wheelchairs is 20 to 21 inches, which is adequate for individuals of average height.
If you're over 6 feet tall, you may want to consider a seat with more height and depth to accommodate your longer frame. If you're under 5 feet tall, you may want a shorter, shallower seat to make it easier to get out of the chair.
Wheelchairs normally come with a 1.5-inch vinyl or fabric seat, which is usually sufficient for limited use. If, however, you plan to use the chair for more than a couple of hours a day, you may want to invest in a cushion. To this end, you can find gel and foam cushions designed for comfort, contoured cushions to help correct postures, and air or gel cushions to help prevent pressure ulcers (source).
Most transport and standard manual wheelchairs are collapsible and lightweight enough to fit into a larger car or SUV. If you're considering an electric model, you will also need to consider the added cost of a lift and van.
The majority of standard and transport wheelchairs weigh between 25 and 40 pounds but ultra-light models made from aircraft-grade aluminum can weigh as little as 19 pounds.
If you plan to spend a lot of time in your wheelchair, optional accessories such as cup holders, side pockets, or trays that slide onto the arms can make daily activities more convenient.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public spaces to be wheelchair accessible, older buildings and many homes may have narrow hallways, doors, and tight turns that make it difficult to navigate a wheelchair through.
Thus, before purchasing a chair, make sure to measure the doors and halls at your home, work, school, and other places you frequent to ensure they can accommodate the wheelchair.
Small, "no-frills" transport wheelchairs and standard manual wheelchairs are the least expensive and normally cost anywhere from $100 to $800. In contrast, electric wheelchairs and wheelchairs made from high-performance materials or that include customized features can cost thousands of dollars.
When choosing a wheelchair with any type of motor or electronic features that could malfunction, make sure to take the seller's and manufacturer's warranties into consideration.
10 BEST WHEELCHAIRS OF 2018
Keeping the above criteria in mind, we've compiled the following list of standard and transport wheelchairs that we believe offer the best combination of amenities and functionally for the money:
The Blue Streak by Drive Medical is sturdy and versatile enough for light to moderate use while still affordable. Its features are basic and functional and thus primarily intended for individuals who only need a wheelchair occasionally, such as when traveling or shopping. While the Blue Streak can be used outside on smooth surfaces, it's really best-suited for indoor use.
While the Cruiser is a more substantial chair than the Blue Streak, it's still best suited for indoor use. This model can be customized in several ways, including seat size and adjustable seat depth, custom back inserts and accessories, and traditional or elevating legrests.
Easy to fold and fit into the trunk of most vehicles, this transport wheelchair is designed for convenience and ease of transport, making it ideal for outdoor excursions. That said, outdoor use should be restricted to smooth, paved surfaces or sidewalks. It's also not the best choice for daily use.
If you're looking for a well-built and sturdy wheelchair designed for occasional to moderate use, the Silver Sport is a safe bet. Like the Steel Transport wheelchair, the back and seat of this model also collapse and fold, making it easy to transport in most vehicles.
Ideal for moderate use, the Tracer EX2 is a solidly built chair that offers a smooth, comfortable ride on a variety of surfaces. While it's easy to transport and store, it does lack some of the amenities you may want if you need a chair to use around the clock, such as a storage pouch.
If your primary goal is to use your wheelchair on outings, the Karman LT-980 is worth considering. Weighing only 24 pounds, this model is one of the lightest wheelchairs available, allowing you or a caregiver to easily fold and stow it in a vehicle while spending the day shopping or visiting sights.
Made from aircraft-grade aluminum and weighing at just under 20 pounds, the Ergo Flight is a breeze to take with you for a day's errands as it's the lightest wheelchair of its type on the market. Despite its light weight, the Ergo Flight is still durable enough for regular use.
Among the chairs reviewed in this list, the Hybrid 2 is unique in that it can operate in standard or transport mode, making it particularly versatile. Depending on your needs, you can remove the small rear transport wheels and replace them with standard wheels, allowing you to propel without assistance. This model is suitable for both daily or occasional use by individuals of almost any ability level.
If you're looking for a budget-friendly wheelchair to easily take with you on outings, the Medline Transport may be a good option. This model is designed for individuals who only need a wheelchair occasionally and who have the ability to propel themselves with their feet or have the assistance of a caregiver.
The 22-inch Transport by Nova is a good option for individuals who want an easily transportable chair that can accommodate larger-framed individuals. At about half the weight of most standard chairs, this collapsible model is small enough to fit into most vehicles.
All the wheelchairs on this list are solid choices and offer good value for the money. But when singling out the chair most appropriate for the majority of users, the Medline Hybrid 2 Transport wheelchair edges out the competition for one key reason: it can be used either in standard or transport mode, thus providing exceptional value at a reasonable cost.
NOW IT'S YOUR TURN!
Are you looking for a wheelchair not included in this guide? Leave your questions/comments below and we'll do our best to answer them!