The traditional frame material for active wheelchairs is aluminium, which is light and durable. There are different "grades" of aluminium, and high end chairs will often feature aircraft-grade aluminium alloys, which are particularly strong - allowing the frame tubing to be thinner, thus saving weight. For those using powered add-ons, aluminium is generally considered to be the most suitable frame material.
Some wheelchairs are available in Titanium too - being a stronger material than aluminium, less of it needs to be used when building the frame, resulting in a lighter wheelchair. It doesn't rust or corrode, and has exceptional fatigue resistance - giving you outstanding durability and longevity. It also dampens vibration, which is an increasingly prominent consideration. Titanium is also a more expensive material than aluminium, so titanium wheelchairs can cost significantly more than equivalent aluminium ones, such as the titanium ZRA compared to the aluminium equivalent Aero Z.
Carbon fibre is the lightest and most premium material available for wheelchairs - five times stronger than steel, twice as stiff, yet far lighter and extremely durable. It tends only to be used for the highest-end, lightest models, which have limited potential for adjustments compared to aluminium ones, so is better suited to experienced wheelchair users.
The essentials to check are simple - make sure the wheelchair can comfortably take your weight (some leeway is always best), and if you are heavier look for ones that can be built in larger seat widths (such as 20 inches / 51 cm).
If you are at risk of pressure sores, then any active user wheelchair can have a pressure cushion fitted - if you have advanced clinical needs then we would recommend an assessment from an Occupational Therapist. While most wheelchairs come with fabric backrests as standard, should you require more postural support, look out for ones that can be fitted with firm backrests such as the Jay, Axiom, Roho and Matrx range.
There are a vast range of seating requirements that people can have - whether that be particular leg angles, supportive armrests, or the addition of lateral supports to maintain an upright position. Active chairs are highly configurable, bespoke built to your requirements following an assessment, so most chairs can be built to accommodate these. However, some of the highest end chairs actually feature less options than middle of the range ones, so might not accommodate every requirement. Given the sheer range of requirements and options, we would recommend discussing your seating needs with one of our product specialists.
As discussed above, if your condition may change over time, we would recommend a model with good levels of adjustability to accommodate this.
This aspect of wheelchairs is becoming increasingly prominent, particularly for those with spinal injuries and back conditions. If you are sitting in your wheelchair for much of the day, the vibrations and impacts from propelling around can have a significant impact on your body. The frame material can have an impact on this (for example titanium frames are known for dampening vibration) - however, the frame design is just as important. There are wheelchairs such as Ki Mobility's Ethos that are designed wholly around minimising vibrations, providing a smooth ride and dampening any movements of your body.
Alternatively, options such as Frogs Legs castor forks provide some suspension to a key part of the chair, isolating you from jolts and shocks - most high-end chairs have the option for these. Loopwheels also provide suspension to your chair, cushioning the ride and reducing vibration.
If you are transferring forwards, the footrests are the most important consideration. Typically a rigid chair will have a fixed front frame with central footplate, while folding chairs have separate swing-away legrests - clearing the space in front of your chair to transfer. However, some rigid (e.g. the Life R) and folding chairs (e.g. the Xenon2) have the options for either. Additionally, some fixed front frames can have a flip-back footrest that leaves space in front for transfers.
The seat height is also important to enable transfers to chairs, beds and vehicles - while also ensuring you have access under tables or desks. Wheelchairs can usually be built to a range of seat heights to fit your environment.
Active user wheelchairs are generally designed for paved, solid surfaces - pavements, shops, homes and offices, though they can also manage firm even pathways. However, they can do much more, when set up in the right way. If you're looking to traverse rougher ground, add-on devices are often crucial (see below). Nonetheless, there are options such as chunky mountain-bike tyres that will give far better traction than the slick road ones found as standard on most chairs.
If you often need to navigate tight indoor spaces, then a chair with a compact frame angle, and inset front end can help ensure you remain as manoeuvrable as possible. This tends to be found on higher-end chairs such as the Nitrum and Rogue; more basic models have less compact angles and insets.
Add-Ons and Power Drives
The popularity of wheelchair add-ons has grown massively in recent years. These range from basic Freewheel-type attachments that lift your front castors off the ground and provide better off-road traction, to powered rear wheels (either controlled like a powerchair as with Alber's E-Fix, or power-assisting each stroke as with the popular E-Motion wheels), and handbikes, such as the Triride's Special Compact HT and the Empulse F55. New devices are hitting the market regularly, such as Alber's Smoov One and Permobil's SmartDrive.
The wide range of add-ons fulfil a similarly wide range of functions - but the key ones are to allow you to take your wheelchair on rougher ground, and to provide motor power to help you out with getting around. This can be particularly useful for those with limited muscle strength or dexterity.
Not every add-on is suitable for every type of wheelchair, so make sure you enquire before buying.