Manual v. Power Wheelchairs

Manual Wheelchairs

An obvious advantage of these chairs over power chairs is their portability. The weight of these chairs can vary quite a bit, ranging from 21 to 40 pounds. Power chairs, on the other hand, can be in the range of 250 to 350 pounds without the user. For this reason, these types of chairs tend to be pretty inexpensive. Maintenance is relatively low, if non-existant, unless damaged during transport. When folded, they are relatively compact, becoming very narrow to allow easy stowage in the trunk of nearly any car. Another advantage with manual chairs is that the costs can be covered by insurance companies and other organizations (such as MDA), with less hassle due to their lower price. Popular brands are Quickie and Invacare, but there are numerous other brands available. Manual wheelchairs can be placed into two categories: light-duty and heavy-duty.

Light-duty chairs are essentially the no-frills wheelchairs that you see in most hospitals, airports, etc. They do not provide much in terms of support, and rarely provide the means to adjust the chair to the user. As a basic wheelchair to use if the user wants to take a break from walking, this is the most cost effective choice. As for self propelling, these chairs tend to be somewhat heavy and clunky which, coupled with the lack of support, may make it difficult for the user to push him/herself. Prices for light-duty chairs are around $1000, but can probably be found for less, due to their availability.

Heavy-duty chairs solve many of the comfort and adjustment issues that light-duty chairs lack at the expense of some compactness. These types can be had with seat cushions and hard backs which greatly increase the comfort and support for the user. Pneumatic tires are typical of these types of chairs which can smooth out the ride. A variety of casters can also be fitted to suit the needs of the user for either increased manevurabilty or stability. Extra framework tends to be present around the bottom of the seat pan to provide extra rigidity further increasing support for the user and making it easier to self-propel. Despite some of the additions that heavy-duty manual chairs have, they are typically around the same weight, if not lighter, as the light-duty chairs due to the increased use of lightweight materials. The major disadvantages to heavy-duty manual chairs is the fact that the seat cushions and rigid backs can make them slightly less compact then their light-duty counterparts and the fact that they do cost more then light-duty chairs.

Power Wheelchairs

All types of power chairs can be configured to suit the needs of the user in almost any aspect in terms of seats, backs, headrests, controls, and accessories. There are also types that can accommodate a wide range of budgets with some starting as low as $3000 to some as high as $30000. Many of the power chairs on the cheaper side tend to be kits that can be retrofitted to a manual chair, thereby maintaining some portability, yet not being as capable as a dedicated power chair. Higher-end chairs are constructed of extremely strong materials and may be equipped with full suspension systems and, in some cases, systems that can control electronics such as lights, powered doors, etc. Insurance companies and other foundations (such as MDA), can offset some or all of the costs as long as the chair can be used and maintained for a longer period of time (about 3-5 years) when compared to a manual chair. Insurance companies may also cover the maintenance costs of the power chair as well when it comes time to change wear-and-tear items such as batteries and tires. Popular brands out there are Quickie, Invacare, and Permobil, but there are a number of other brands out that are good. Upon close inspection, you will notice that many chairs, regardless of brand, use many of the same parts such as footrests, wheels, tires, batteries, etc. The major differences between brands are the frames and configuration. Some insurance companies and vendors may favor one brand over another, so it’s important to research the various power chairs, to find the one best suited for your needs. The next section will focus on the advantages of the three basic power chair configurations. Power chairs can typically be placed into three categories based on the drive configuration: front-wheel-drive (FWD), rear-wheel-drive (RWD), and mid-wheel-drive (MWD).

Front-Wheel Drive (FWD) chairs are a fairly rare configuration to find when compared to its counterparts. As it is described, the powered wheels are in the front and the casters are in the back. The primary advantage to a FWD chair is its extreme maneuverability. In an indoor environment, FWD chairs can turn in tighter areas when compared to a MWD and RWD chair. The primary disadvantage to a FWD chair is the lack of stability when braking and traveling down inclines. While FWD chairs do have anti-tippers that will prevent the chair from tipping completely forward, the rear of the chair will lift off the ground when braking hard. This can create an uneasy feeling for the user. The same feeling can happen when driving the chair down an incline. To minimize this issue, these chairs tend to be limited to a low speed, which will turn off users who wish to go fast. While a FWD chair makes a great indoor chair, it may not be the optimal choice if one is active outdoors.

Rear-Wheel Drive (RWD) chairs used to be the ‘typical’ configuration for power chairs, with the powered wheels in the back and the casters up front. With this chair being set up in a similar fashion to a manual chair, this type of chair provides a very similar feeling for the user, with the exception that noone is pushing them. Because of this, it should be pretty easy for the user to transition into this type of chair. Driving this type of chair is similar to that of driving a vehicle. For users who wish to go fast, these types of chairs can be geared for a fairly high speed, while maintaining stability and control. The balance of the chair in an outdoor environment is ideal. The heavy batteries are located between the rear drive wheels providing good balance in nearly any terrain. The disadvantage to a RWD chair is the lack of maneuverability compared to the other configurations. The turning radius is wide making negotiating tight spaces more of a challenge then the other types. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, this may be the ideal chair for you.

Mid-Wheel Drive (MWD) chairs came about as a compromise between FWD and RWD chairs. The idea of the MWD chair is to try and get the maneuverability of a FWD chair with the stability of a RWD chair. It is because of this combination of abilities that this configuration is steadily becoming popular amongst power chair users. Out of the three configurations, the MWD is the most stable in any environment. Maneuverability is great with the turning radius being essentially zero since it can turn on its own axis. While it is much more agile indoors compared to a RWD chair, it is just as capable as a FWD chair in all but the tightest situations. As for performance, these types of chairs are just as quick as RWD chairs, except at its absolute limit. As many people are realizing, this configuration is ideal in almost any environment.

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