Categories of Wheelchairs
Most personal wheelchairs look a lot different to all pictures found online of people being pushed in chairs. Take a moment and think about those chairs. They have a high back and long seat of material similar that found on cheap stacked chairs. How long could you comfortably sit in a chair that is built like that??
Now think of a wheelchair in wheelchair basketball or another wheelchair sport. It has a very low back that leaves lots of play for the shoulders, wheels that slant outwards, and typically a cushioned seat. This chair would be comfortable and safe for a paraplegic with good core strength, but that description does not apply to someone with multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy.
Below I have listed the 5 classifications of manual wheelchairs and a brief description of each. For information on power wheelchairs, click here.
Here is the kind of chair you would see in a hospital, or in a stereotypical picture of an elderly individual being pushed along by a youthful assistant.
These chairs are cheap and useful for short journeys. They have integral padding on seat and back, and are built to be easy clean and easy use. However, they have only small wheels and require an attendant for propulsion - taking away entirely the independence of the person using the chair.
Lightweight Manual Wheelchairs
The lightweight manual chair is the perfect choice for an individual with muscle tone who only needs to propel short distances. They are lighter than a transport chair and have big wheels at the back similar to a sports chair, but they are more supportive, not as light or tough as rigid chairs. These chairs are still heavier than would be desirable for a user with decreasing strength and could result in shoulder strain.
These chairs would be more expensive than a transport chair, but still a more cost effective option.
Lightweight Adjustable Manual Wheelchairs
In this scenario, granny is in the nursing home, and she can still sit up straight, but her muscle tone is not capable of pushing anything very heavy. Now she needs a chair with the maximum possible amount of weight over the rear casters without the chair being at risk of tipping over backwards. Her chair also needs to be lighter so that she can propel using her hands or her feet for longer distances and retain her independence in getting around her room.
Now we need a more expensive but lighter and more adjustable chair.
Your sports wheelchair. This chair is built to be used and abused by young individuals who are constantly pushing their limits. It has few moving parts, does not fold, and often includes slanted rear wheels for better propulsion. Typical material is aluminum, but better models are made of carbon fiber and the really demanding users often end up with titanium as the only frame that lasts.
These chairs must be ordered to measure from the manufacturer as they are non-adjustable, so be sure you use a reliable vendor and get all your answers at the time of the first assessment!
Now imagine granny in the nursing home, and she has suffered a stroke. She can now no longer hold her body straight, and she is coming out with reddened skin on her tailbone from being unable to shift her weight when she feels uncomfortable.
Now she needs a wheelchair that takes the pressure off her tailbone and allows her body to relax in its natural straight position, which can only happen by tilting the wheelchair back and allowing gravity to do that work. Along with the tilt chair, she will probably get a pressure relieving air cushion and an extra supportive back to help her maintain a healthy posture.