Guide to buying a wheelchair

Buying a wheelchair can be tricky – they all have different features, they vary widely in price, and you have to get one that fits you. 

So before you buy a wheelchair, use this guide to inform you about all you need to know. Then you can be sure you’re making an educated decision. After all, a wheelchair is a vital piece of equipment and you need to make sure it’s exactly right for what you need.

What type of wheelchair is right for you? 

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. When you think you’ve got it figured out, head to your local Disability Information Centre (DIC) and talk to them about it. They’ll be able to point you in the right direction and may even have some wheelchairs for you to try. You always want to spend some time in a wheelchair before committing to buying, especially if you’ll be spending a lot of time in it.

Find your nearest information centre

Types of wheelchairs

Wheelchairs fall under two broad categories: manual wheelchairs and power wheelchairs. There are lots of different types within those two categories, and we’ll get to them, but here’s the main difference between the two:

  • Manual wheelchairs don’t have a motor. They’re propelled either by the person sitting in the chair, or by someone pushing from behind.
  • Electric/power wheelchairs are run by an electric motor that the user operates with a control panel, usually located on one arm of the chair.

Manual wheelchairs

There are three main types of manual wheelchairs:

  1. transit or attendant propelled
  2. self-propelling
  3. 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.

A Transit wheelchair, designed to be pushed by an attendant

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 cramming into tight spaces.

A self propelled wheelchair has large rear wheels so you can push yourself

Lightweight foldable wheelchairs

Lightweight foldable wheelchairs are the most commonly-used type of chair. They’re 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 also get these chairs in attendant propelled or self-propelled versions.

A lightweight foldable wheelchair

A lightweight wheelchair is shown folded up

Electric/power wheelchairs

Electric wheelchairs are propelled by a battery-powered motor. They’re ideal if you will be using the wheelchair a lot or have limited upper body strength. While they’re powerful and versatile, they’re also more expensive than manual wheelchairs. The price of electric wheelchairs range from around $3000 at the low end to more than $10,000 at the high end. The difference between a lower and higher end model is the versatility and range.

A GoChair Powerchair

Versatility

Because they have a motor, electric wheelchairs can do more than manual wheelchairs. For example, some have a lift seat so you can be elevated to reach something high up. This is particularly useful in places like supermarkets where you may need to get an item off the top shelf. It’s also handy at home so you can reach higher spaces like cupboards.

A higher-end electric wheelchair can also go more places than a basic model. Entry-level electric wheelchairs often have smaller wheels and a less powerful motor, making them ideal for use around the home. More expensive models usually have bigger wheels and more powerful motors, meaning they’re better suited to driving over hilly or rough terrain.

Range

It’s important to think about how much you’ll be using the wheelchair. If you’ll be using the wheelchair all day, every day, you’ll need a chair with a reasonably long range. Basic chairs have a range of up to 15km on a single charge but higher-end chairs can have more than double that. If you think you’ll need to cover large distances, a longer range is important.

Power adapter for manual wheelchairs

If you already have a manual wheelchair but would like a bit more help getting around, you can also get a device that makes your wheelchair electric powered. It’s a small motor that attaches to your manual wheelchair, converting it to an electric wheelchair. This could be a good option if you’ve already got a manual wheelchair or you don’t feel like you can justify buying a full electric wheelchair.

Wheelchair sizes

Just like a pair of shoes, a wheelchair has to fit you properly. Too big, and you’ll struggle to move it properly. Too small, and it’ll be uncomfortable and you won’t want to stay in it very long. 

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.

How to measure yourself for a wheelchair

To measure the ideal seat width for you, take a flat measurement across your hips while sitting. Be sure not to bend the tape measure when you’re doing this. Then add another centimetre or two to allow for a bit of wiggle room either size.

To measure the ideal seat depth, you need to measure from the back of your bottom to the back of your knee when sitting down. Then subtract a couple of centimetres and you should have the right seat depth measurement.

This is just a guide – always make sure you try a chair in real life before buying one!

Armrests

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 – or 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.

Getting advice

Even if you’ve got a pretty good idea of what type of wheelchair you need, it’s worth getting professional advice. You could consult an occupational therapist or physiotherapist, or even pop into your local Disability Information Centre.

It’s recommended that you get professional advice if you:

  • Will be sitting in the wheelchair all day
  • Need to wheel yourself around all day in different environments
  • Have very frail skin
  • Are unable to sit upright or hold your head up when sitting in a chair

You should also seek professional advice if you’re considering these types of specialist wheelchairs:

  • Ultra lightweight wheelchairs
  • Rigid or fixed framed wheelchairs
  • Heavy duty wheelchairs
  • Tilt in Space wheelchairs
  • Sports wheelchairs
  • Paediatric (children’s) wheelchairs
  • Standing up wheelchairs