Choosing a Manual Wheelchair

Things to consider
The type of wheelchair you need will depend on how and where you'll use it.  Asking yourself some key questions can help narrow down your options.
For example: 

  • Can you wheel yourself, or do you need someone to push you?
  • How long will you be spending in it each day?
  • Where will you be using the wheelchair? Indoors or outdoors?
  • Do you need to transport the wheelchair in a car?
  • How much do you want to spend?
  • Are you buying a new or second-hand wheelchair?

Think about these questions as you read through this guide and refer back to them if you need to.  It’ll help you narrow down what you need. 

Types of manual wheelchairs

There are three main types of manual wheelchairs:

  • Transit or attendant propelled 
  • Self-propelling 
  • Lightweight foldable

Transit or attendant propelled wheelchairs
Transit or attendant propelled wheelchairs are ideal if you can’t push yourself. The rear wheels are small, so you’ll need someone to push you in the chair from behind.  The small rear wheels make the chair much lighter and easier to transport.  They’re also smaller, and therefore easier to move around tight spaces.

Self-propelled wheelchairs
Self-propelled wheelchairs have large rear wheels and smaller front wheels.  These enable you to wheel yourself in the chair, making you more independent.  But keep in mind they do require some upper body strength to use, so if you have limited mobility or strength in your arms, an electric or attendant propelled wheelchair might be a better option for you.  Self-propelled wheelchairs are also larger and heavier than transit chairs, so they’re not ideal for navigating around tight spaces.

Lightweight foldable wheelchairs
Lightweight foldable wheelchairs are the most commonly used type of wheelchair.  They are generally collapsible, so you can fold them up when you’re not using them.  This makes them particularly useful for outings and travel.  You can get these chairs in both transit and self-propelled versions.

How do I know what size wheelchair is right?
Just like a pair of shoes, a wheelchair has to fit you properly.  It is important that the wheelchair is comfortable and that it is not likely to press on any part of the body, with the potential of creating pressure areas.

Seat Sizes
The main things to consider when getting the right size wheelchair is your hip width, the length of your thigh, and your weight.
Usually, wheelchairs are measured by the seat size, so an 18” wheelchair means the seat is 18” wide.  If you see a wheelchair measuring 18”x17”, the second number is the depth of the seat. 

To ensure the right fit, the following measurements are needed of the wheelchair user:
  1. The measurement from the bottom to the shoulder (taken when sitting) 
  2. The measurement from the back of the bottom to the back of the knee. 
  3. The measurement from behind the knee to the heel (taken when sitting). 
  4. The widest measurement of the backside when seated. 
  5. As different wheelchairs have different user weight limits, it’s important to know the weight of the wheelchair user.
If it’s hard to get all these measurements, there are a couple of simple things that can be done to make sure the wheelchair fits okay:
  • Is there enough room to slide a hand down between the armrest and the thigh?  If this is not possible, a larger size needs to be tried.
  • Can two fingers side by side be put behind the knee before hitting the seat upholstery?  If not, then a wheelchair with a longer seat depth is needed. 

Ideally you want to have the back-upholstery end just under the shoulder blade.  Sometimes carers like to have the push canes higher to make it easier for them to push but be careful in raising them up too high as this can often stop the users being able to self-propel easily.  An adjustable height backrest is an idea especially if a wheelchair cushion hasn’t been decided on yet. 

Armrests may seem like a pretty minor feature of a wheelchair but getting a chair with the right armrests is actually pretty important. 

Some wheelchairs have armrests that can be removed or swung away, and some have fixed armrests.  This is important, depending on how and where you use your wheelchair most. 

If you need to stand up from your wheelchair a lot, full-length armrests are important because you’ll something to support your weight as you get out.  If you’ll be using your wheelchair in an office, you could get a wheelchair with desk-length armrests, which allow you to get closer to a desk.

Leg rests
There are two main types of leg rests: flip up or elevating. 

  • Flip up leg rests / footplates can be moved vertically, or swung away, to make it easier to get out of the chair
  • Elevating leg rests may be needed if you can’t bend your knees or you have swelling in your feet. 
Even if you’ve got a pretty good idea of what type of wheelchair you need, it’s a good idea to get professional advice.  You could consult an occupational therapist or physiotherapist, or even pop into your local Disability Information Centre for further information and help.