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12 Types of Wheelchairs

Understand the options and choose the wheelchair that is right for you.

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12 Types of Wheelchairs

Army Maj. Ladda "Tammy" Duckworth of the Illinois Army National Guard, an Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot, suffered the loss of both legs when a rocket-propelled grenade penetrated her helicopter beneath her feet and exploded at her knees in Iraq.

Photo (c) Public Domain

The 2005 Census Data tells us that as people age, the prevalence of disability increases. The incidence rate of disability was three times more likely in the 55-64 age group (at 30 percent) in the 2005 Census than in the 15-24 age group (at 10 percent).

The numbers continue to climb with age beyond 65 too.

At ages 70, 75, and 80, the incidence of disability soared to 43 percent, 56 percent, and 71 percent, respectively.

What this all suggests is that at these rates, the total number of people with a disability will increase as the population grows within each successive age group. Of course, this makes us think about the Baby Boomer generation, and the need for disability services, like wheelchairs, as this generation progresses into their 70's and 80's. In the 2005 Census Data, the Baby Boomers had not yet reached age 65. In the same 2005 Census Survey, 3.3 million people reported using a wheelchair, and another 10 million said they needed a walker, cane, or crutch to get around and accomplish the Activities of Daily Living.

The terms, "Activities of Daily Living" and "Instrumental Activities of Daily Living" have been defined and used by agencies such as the U.S. Census Bureau, Medicare, and the National Health Interview Survey.

Activities of Daily Living (ADLs)

  • Maneuvering inside and throughout the home
  • Getting in or out of bed or a chair
  • Bathing
  • Dressing
  • Eating
  • Toileting

Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs)

  • Going outside the home
  • Keeping track of money and bills
  • Preparing meals
  • Doing light housework
  • Taking prescription medicines in the right amount at the right time
  • Using the telephone

12 Types of Wheelchairs

  1. Basic
    • Wheelchairs are durable medical equipment that include footrest and legrest, sometimes offering an elevating legrest capability, in either full-length or desk-length arms, and seat width options of 16, 18, or 20 inches
  2. Narrow
    • Typically 16-inch wide seat only
  3. Standard
    • The basic model with several available features such as variable seat widths, detachable footrests, elevating legrests, permanent arms or removable arms, full-length arms or desk-length arms
  4. Lightweight
    • These lighter chairs are made for those who travel with their chairs.
    • They are often upholstered in nylon, and offer the optional features that the basic and standard models do.
    • These versatile chairs may also include the option of a quick-release wheel removal process, and/or an adjustable-height back
  5. Extra-Wide Wheelchairs
    • Whereas other wheelchairs have a typical weight-capacity of 300 lbs., the extra-wide chairs usually range from 350 to 450 maximum weight capacity.
    • The width options are typically in the 20-inch to 24-inch range
  6. Antimicrobial Wheelchairs
    • There are now companies that make chairs treated with antimicrobial technology on the major patient contact surfaces.
    • Works continuously to slow or prevent the growth of stain and odor causing bacteria.
    • Upholstery may be vinyl instead of nylon
  7. Bariatric
    • Bariatric wheelchairs are typically set at 24, 26, 28, or 30-inch width seats, and can support up to 700 pounds
  8. Heavy-Duty Transport chairs
    • Some chairs are built for transport and not self-propulsion. The rear wheels are typically close to 12-inches in diameter. The wheels are not meant for the person in the chair to reach and roll forward.
    • The may feature a back that folds down to make storage and transport much easier than other chairs.
    • They may also include handbrakes to give the person pushing the chair better control.
    • Possibly a seatbelt, and other comfort accessories like a cup-holder mounted to one fo the arm frames.
    • There may not be too many arm rest choices on this style of chair. Plan on possibly only finding full-length permanent arms.
    • Seat width for the heavy-duty version is typically in the 20-inch to 24-inch range.
    • Transport wheelchairs are typically made of materials that keep them light. Even a heavy-duty transport wheelchair may only way around 35 pounds, while still guaranteeing a weight capacity of up to 400 pounds.
  9. Standard Transport chairs
    • The slightly smaller, standard-size, transport chairs are built to support people that weigh up to 300 pounds.
    • The back, like the heavy-duty version, folds down for easy storage.
    • It is more typical to find the restaurant-style armrest on these, which allows the person in the wheelchair to get closer to the table.
    • You'll find seat width a little slimmer than the heavy-duty version too. Expect to see seat widths at less than 20-inches.
    • Since these chairs are built to support a lighter weight person, the rear wheels will be smaller too. The rear wheels will be in the 8-inch range for many models.
    • Chairs in this category weigh about half as much as their heavy-duty counterparts.
    • Instead of steel frames, transport chairs have optional chairs made of lighter metals such as aluminum to make the chair weigh less.
    • There are also hybrid transport wheelchairs, where the back wheels have a quick-release mechanism that allow removal and exchange of the rear wheel style. You can use the larger, self-propulsion wheels, or switch them to the smaller transport wheels.
  10. Recliners
    • Recliners are a type of heavy-duty chair also.
    • Typically designed to support bariatric weight classes, in the 700-pound range.
    • They have a reclining back to open up the torso. This redistributes the person's weight in a safer, more comfortable way.
    • Look for features such as the ability to change the height of the back.
    • There are recliner wheelchairs on the market with different seat to floor height options, too. You can find seat heights set at 15, 16, 17, or 18-inches from the floor.
  11. Pediatric Wheelchairs
    • Smaller frames that typically support a maximum weight of 250 pounds.
    • You'll find the seat narrower and shallower as well. They are generally around 14-inches wide and closer to 12-inches deep.
    • Chairs designed for children are set a little lower to the ground, so the handles in back on some chairs have the capability of telescoping so that the adult maneuvering the wheelchair can reach the handles comfortably.
  12. MRI Chairs
    • Everything in an Magnetic Resonance Imaging Suite needs to be made from non-magnetic materials
    • Some chairs are made of PVC pipe, which is not only non-magnetic, but has also shown to inhibit bacteria growth
    • Typical seat and back materials are cushioned mesh sling materials
    • Features such as wheel locks and folding footrests can also be found
    • There are metal MRI chairs too. They are made of non-magnetic metals. Don't feel that you need to be chemical expert. Manufacturers stamp, and prominently market, MRI-safe chairs.

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