Choosing an Active Wheelchair

With a wide array of models available from many different manufacturers, and big decisions to make such as rigid or folding, aluminium, titanium or carbon fibre, choosing the right active user wheelchair may initially seem a daunting decision. However, a few simple decisions can usually narrow down the selection substantially, and we have written this guide to help you with that.

Experience

The first thing to consider when picking an active user wheelchair is your level of experience. If you are new to self-propelling, it can take a while - often around a year or more - to work out your best seating set-up. This means that beginners will often want a highly adjustable entry-level model such as the Life series (rigid or folding) that allows a high degree of post-supply alterations to accommodate your changing seating needs. That said, many people do go straight into higher-end chairs that still retain a good degree of adjustability, such as the Argon2, Rogue or K-Series, as these are lighter and easier to propel.

Similarly your driving skills will develop with time, so an adjustable chair will let you change the profile from a stability-focused position to a much more active and efficient "tippy" setup as your skills improve.

More experienced wheelchair users usually know their ideal setup so need less adjustments - often just some minimal fine-tuning is needed, allowing the chair to be lighter. For those with several years of experience, a bespoke welded frame is the ultimate choice, such as TiLite's TR and ZR, Progeo's Joker Energy or Kuschall's KSL. While allowing no margin for corrections, these are the lightest and stiffest option, allowing you to propel further and faster.

Weight

One of the most crucial factors when picking a wheelchair is its weight. After all, the heavier the wheelchair, the more you have to push around with you. Much of this is discussed in the below three sections (transport, folding or rigid, frame material) as those tie in to the weight of the chair. Many products list two different weights - the "transport weight", which reflects how the wheelchair will most commonly be lifted (cushion and wheels removed), and the "overall weight" which reflects what you'll be propelling around. Bear in mind that advertised weights tend to be based off very small seat sizes, and the lightest options available on the chair (some of which will be cost options). If you need a larger frame, or armrests and so on, the weight will be increased.

Manufacturers also tend to weight their models slightly differently - some even exclude the brakes from their measurement! The numbers are therefore best used to compare models within a manufacturer's range rather than between different manufacturers.

The lightest wheelchair currently in our range is the carbon fibre Quickie Krypton R, with a transport weight that starts at a mere 3.65 kg.

Transport

Traditionally, folding wheelchairs are perceived as more transportable, and they are therefore a popular choice for carers or family members to fold up and put in a car. They also have the advantage of taking up limited space in your house when not in use.

However, rigid wheelchairs can potentially be extremely transportable - more so even than folding ones. Most higher end ones can have folding backrests that lock down, and with the quick release wheels popped off this makes them incredibly compact. This allows the wheelchair user to lift the chair easily over their body and onto a passenger or rear seat (they will also fit into the back of most cars). Significantly lighter than folding wheelchairs, they often allow the wheelchair user to independently drive and transport their own wheelchair without needing assistance.

If you are wishing to use your chair for occupied transport in a vehicle - whether your own WAV or community transport such as a minibus - you will need a Crash Tested one. Most chairs are crash tested in certain configurations, with the option for transit brackets, allowing the the wheelchair to be strapped down.

Folding or Rigid

As discussed above, transportability is a key factor when deciding between a folding or rigid wheelchair. However, this decision has a big impact on performance too. Rigid wheelchairs offer much improved efficiency, with less of your energy input lost to "flex" in the frame, also helped by being much lighter, with equivalent folding chairs usually being at least a couple of kilos heavier. Roughly 75% of active user wheelchairs are rigid ones, and we generally recommend opting for one unless there is a particular requirement for it to be folded.

Rigid Wheelchairs

For the most responsive ride
Rigid chairs are by far the most popular, being the lightest and highest performing. Ours range from beginners' chairs up to fully-welded models for veterans.

Folding Wheelchairs

Convenient for transport
Folding wheelchairs are simple to transport, and can be high performance and sporty too. Look out for models with a rigid-feel to their ride.

Frame Material

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. Most carbon fibre wheelchairs cannot have powered add-ons affixed to them; Progeo's Noir 2.0 is the only exception to this due to its exceptional frame strength.

Seating Requirements

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.

Vibration Dampening

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.

Transfers

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.

Usage

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, Rehasense's PAWS City 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.

Power Add-Ons

Go further, go faster
For some extra assistance with getting around, our range of power add-ons can help. We offer everything from power-wheels to off-roading handbikes.

Accessories

Upgrade your ride
Our selection of active wheelchair accessories lets you personalise your ride, and includes off-roading wheels such as the popular integrated-suspension Loopwheels.

Appearance

Wheelchairs have moved on a long way from the old days of chunky grey metal, with nuts and bolts everywhere. People want to look good, and their wheelchair is no exception - particularly if you're out and about in it all day. Wheelchair manufacturers put a lot of effort into making their products look good, and most can be customised with a range of contrasting colours and sporty frames. Appearance is very much subjective, and each manufacturer offers their own style - from Quickie's sporty accented look to Kuschall's sleek frames, Progeo's sophisticated Italian style, Ki Mobility's oversized tubing and TiLite's frame tattoos.

Sports

If you are looking for a wheelchair for sports use, it is recommended to get a separate one from your everyday wheelchair - as anything other than the most casual of sports tends to punish a wheelchair, and you need one designed to withstand these unique rigours. We do not currently supply sports wheelchairs.

Children's Active Wheelchairs

For younger people
From children using a wheelchair for the first time to a teenager looking to develop their independence, our growth-adjustable models have it all.

Children

There are some unique considerations to bear in mind with paediatric wheelchairs. For both young children and teenagers, picking a wheelchair with in-built growth is crucial - you don't want to be buying a new wheelchair every year, and it's crucial they're able to constantly provide a perfect fit.

Safety and stability are also key - you want your child to develop independence, but in a way that ensures their safety. Look out for options such as the Zippie Youngster 3 and Simba's safe-to-operate safari brake, or the Little Wave Clik's unique dynamic fifth wheel. The latter is particularly good at letting children improve their wheelchair skills in safety, without limiting their access the way that traditional anti-tip wheels do.

A selection of our active wheelchairs and add-ons on display in our Chessington showroom

If after reading this guide, you need further assistance in choosing an active wheelchair, please contact our customer services team who will be able discuss your options with you. We can book an appointment for you to see a product specialist, either at our Chessington showroom or a home demonstration. They will be able to discuss the options available, and advise on which would be the most suitable; you will also have the opportunity to try out several models at your leisure. This first-hand experience is invaluable when it comes to determining which wheelchair is the right one for you.