How to Choose the Right Wheelchair – Buyer’s Guide

Wheelchair guide

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Choosing a wheelchair can be a life-changing decision. Getting the right one will vastly improve your quality of life while choosing one that doesn’t meet your needs could make life more difficult. That is why this is a decision that should be given some serious consideration. Looking at all aspects of the wheelchair and comparing these with your requirements will help you source the right one.

Manual or Powered Wheelchair?

Wheelchairs mainly come in two types; manual and powered. Manual wheelchairs can either be pushed by an assistant, while some feature hand grips on the rear wheels, allowing the user to self-propel. Powered wheelchairs rely on a rechargeable battery.

Both types have their pros and cons, but it’s important to compare your needs with the features to make the best decision.

Manual Wheelchairs

Manual wheelchairs guide

Primarily, when choosing a manual wheelchair, you will need to think about whether you’ll rely on a caregiver to push you or whether you’ll self-propel. If you don’t need a wheelchair permanently but require one to move from A to B, then an assistant-propelled transport wheelchair might be the best option. They feature small back wheels and are often collapsable for easy storage. However, these are not suitable for people who will be using the chair for more intense needs or for those who wish to self-propel.

If you are going to use a standard wheelchair to self-propel, you must be aware that a good amount of upper body strength is needed. On the other hand, users who opt for a transport chair will need to ensure that they always have someone to push them.

You will also need to consider how frequently you intend on using the wheelchair. For some people, wheelchairs provide mobility where the user would otherwise be unable to get around. In this case, you are going to want to choose a manual wheelchair that is as comfortable, reliable, and easy to use as possible.

The standard wheelchair is the most common, and often most affordable option, but it doesn’t tend to come with as many comfort features. If you’re going to use the chair over long distances, this may not be suitable. Furthermore, for heavier users, standard manual wheelchairs won’t offer the right support, so looking for a heavy-duty, also known as a bariatric wheelchair, is the best option.

If you will be relying on your manual wheelchair for most of the day, you want something that is going to offer exceptional comfort. There are some that feature reclining backrests that allow you to adjust your angle to feel more comfortable. However, if you need greater support when reclining and tilting, a tilt-in-space wheelchair allows you to adjust your angle while keeping the hips and legs in position. This is ideal for people who have respiratory issues and for keeping pressure off the back. This type of wheelchair may also be suitable for people with more advanced needs and can make certain tasks like feeding and medical care easier for caregivers.

All in all, a manual wheelchair is a better option for people who only need to use their mobility aid occasionally or temporarily. If your needs are a little more severe, then a powered wheelchair may be better for you.

Standard Wheelchair

Transport Wheelchair

Heavy-Duty Wheelchair

Reclining & Tilt-in Space Wheelchair

Suited For

Suitable for users with good upper body strength who can self-propel

Suitable for users who are unable to propel themselves and require assistance

Suitable for heavier users who can self-propel

Suitable for users who need to use their wheelchair for prolonged periods


  • Can be used indoors and outdoors

  • Can be independently propelled and can also be assistant-propelled

  • Suitable for short or longer trips

  • Good maneuverability over curbs and other obstacles

  • Collapsible and lightweight, so easily transportable

  • Good maneuverability in confined spaces

  • Good weight capacity (ranging from 300 – 700 lbs)

  • Wider selection of seat sizes to suit different needs

  • Angle of the backrest can be adjusted to provide maximum comfort to the user

  • As the user can be repositioned throughout the day, this can reduce the risk of developing pressure sores

  • Tilt-in-space wheelchairs are suitable for users with more complex needs


  • Seating adjustments on this type of chair is not as flexible as a reclining or tilt-in-space wheelchair

  • More suited for shorter distances

  • Cannot be manually-propelled

  • Not suited for rough terrain

  • Heavier than standard wheelchairs

  • Some chairs can be too wide for narrow spaces

  • Some chairs can be difficult to transport

  • More expensive than standard wheelchairs

Powered Wheelchairs

Powered wheelchairs buyer's guide

A powered wheelchair is a more advanced device that is suitable for people who do not have the upper body strength to operate a self-propelled manual wheelchair. They’re also a great choice for people who rely on a wheelchair for most, or all, of their day-to-day mobility needs.

Depending on how you intend on using the chair, there are different types to consider. For people who will use their powered wheelchair as a main mode of transport, an all-terrain powerchair will give them much more versatility in terms of where it can be used. However, if you combine the use of your wheelchair with a car or other vehicle, then you might wish to look for a portable electric wheelchair that will fold for transportation.

Similar to manual wheelchairs, their powered counterparts come in a heavy-duty option as well for larger people to offer better support and comfort.

If users would like to be able to use surfaces at varying heights, being in a wheelchair can limit this. Fortunately, many powered wheelchairs come with an elevating seat which allows the user to raise themselves to use countertops and tables as well as being able to sit at eye height with peers.

Whatever type of powered wheelchair you opt for, it is important to look at various features before settling on any particular model. You’ll want to look at how easy the wheelchair is to control. Its common knowledge that operating these chairs can take some getting used to, so the simpler the controls, the better. It’s also a good idea to look at whether they are easy for someone with limited dexterity, which is often a problem for permanent wheelchair users.

Since these wheelchairs rely on a battery to power them, it’s essential to look at the capacity of the battery. You’ll need to make sure that it has a long enough run time to meet your daily needs and that, when charging, you won’t be waiting around for longer than necessary before you can get out and about again. You can check the type of battery the wheelchair uses, which will give you a good idea of the capacity and charge time.

In the main, there are two types of batteries that you’ll use in a powered wheelchair; the gel-sealed lead acid battery and the deep cycle AGM battery. These are affordable but they do require a considerable amount of maintenance. Modern power wheelchairs are now more frequently being used with lithium-ion batteries which may not be as robust as other types but they do have the advantage of high energy density and being low maintenance.

All-Terrain Electric Wheelchair

Portable Electric Wheelchair

Heavy-Duty Electric Wheelchair

Elevating Seat Electric Wheelchair

Suited For

Suitable for users are looking to use their powered wheelchair on different types of terrain

Suitable for users who require a powered wheelchair that is easily transportable

Suitable for bariatric users

Suitable for users with more complex needs who need a powered wheelchairs for prolonged periods throughout the day


  • Can handle outdoor terrain, therefore, providing the user with greater freedom and independence

  • Available in different drive systems (front-wheel, mid-wheel, and rear-wheel drive)

  • Can handle higher gradient inclines

  • Generally have higher ground clearance

  • Usually fitted with a suspension system which helps to provide a smoother ride

  • Can usually be taken apart for easier storage and transportation

  • Lighter than other models of electric wheelchairs

  • Good maneuverability even in confined spaces

  • Come in different sizes for increased comfort and support for larger users

  • Increases accessibility and extends vertical reach for the wheelchair user

  • Can reduce discomfort as it allows the user to reposition themselves more easily

  • Can assist with digestion, circulation as, and improve respiratory function


  • Some all-terrain powerchairs cannot be taken apart

  • Often have smaller travel ranges

  • Generally have larger turning radius

  • More expensive than regular powered wheelchairs

  • Controls are more complex and can require some getting used to

Wheelchair Dimensions & Weight

Wheelchair size & dimensions

It is very important to think about the size of your new wheelchair especially compared to where you intend on using it. For example, if you are going to mostly be using the wheelchair indoors, you will need something that is narrow enough to comfortably pass through corridors and doorways. Moreover, when the wheelchair is not in use, you will need to think about how lightweight it is and whether it can be folded; both of these factors will make storage much easier.

If you are looking for a more lightweight wheelchair, then aluminum is one of the best materials to go for. It is robust enough for everyday use but light enough that the wheelchair can be easily lifted in and out of the trunk of your car. When choosing a powered wheelchair for travel, you will need to check if the battery is airline approved otherwise you risk not being able to fly with your wheelchair.

You will also need to think about the turning radius of the wheelchair. This is the space the wheelchair uses when making a turn on the spot and is super important for people who will be using the chair indoors or in tight spaces.

But it isn’t only the environment you will need to think about. Choosing a wheelchair also means finding one that is comfortable for you. While there is no industry standard for the width of a wheelchair seat, you’ll typically find that, on average, it’s around 21 inches. However, this may not be wide enough for larger people and can cause great discomfort, so in this case, you should look for a bariatric wheelchair which offers a wider seat, often measuring up to 40 inches. These wheelchairs also feature a higher weight capacity and so offer more safety and support for bigger users.

Similarly, there are wheelchairs whose dimensions are much smaller and are designed for children. It is important to measure the width and the height of the backrest to ensure that the chair provides the most support, and this is even more important for users who are unable to hold themselves or balance easily.


Wheelchair tire types

Your wheelchair tires will take quite a lot of battering when moving around, especially over rough terrain. This is why it is crucial to choose tires that match your needs and that won’t let you down.

One of the first things to think about is whether you will be using the wheelchair indoors or outdoors. The terrain will be quite different outside and may require tougher, more resilient tires. If you are going to be going over very uneven ground then you might consider choosing solid rubber wheels which have the benefit of being puncture-proof. The only problem with these is that they do give you a harder ride.

On the other hand, pneumatic rear tires are excellent if you need greater shock absorbency but when using on certain types of ground, there is a risk that they will puncture. Even if they do not puncture, they will begin to lose air over time, meaning that they require more maintenance. There is the option to buy flat-free pneumatic tires that feature solid inners; these give you the protection of rubber with the easy ride of air-filled tires.

If you choose solid tires, these may be made from either rubber or plastic. Both are durable materials, but this type of wheel is typically found on a transport chair that has smaller rear wheels. Being much smoother, they make the wheelchair much easier to maneuver.


Wheelchair brakes

For your safety, brakes are one of the most essential features of your wheelchair. For most self-propelled manual wheelchairs, the brakes will be located near the handgrips on the rear wheels. These are typically push/pull brakes that operate a lever that pushes against the wheel to stop it from moving. There are also scissor locks for users that are more active as these brakes are located more in line with the wheelchair frame, helping to prevent injuries.

For wheelchair users who are unable to easily reach the brakes, it is possible to use a brake extension. However, you should keep in mind that it is not uncommon for hands and arms to collide with these, so this is something you should be careful of.

If you are using a transport wheelchair, it is likely that the brakes will be located near the handles to make stopping the chair easier for the attendant.

You will also notice that your wheelchair comes with locks but it is important to keep in mind that these are not the same as brakes. Instead, these are designed to keep the wheelchair in the ‘park’ position which is essential when making a transfer.


The chances are that you are going to get a lot of use out of your wheelchair, so it is important that you choose something that feels comfortable. This is especially important if you will be using it for extended periods or permanently.

If you do not have the correct comfort features, then this may result in painful conditions such as pressure sores. One of the best ways to avoid this is to look for a wheelchair whose seat is adequately cushioned to provide additional comfort and support. But this is not the only thing to consider when looking at comfort.


Wheelchair seat

You should think about the dimensions of the seat. If you are a larger wheelchair user, then you may need to look for one that is wider and that won’t put unnecessary pressure on you. Standard wheelchairs generally measure between 16 and 20 inches across, but some larger ones may be up to 28 inches wide.

The material from which the seat is made is also important as this will determine how breathable it is as well as how easy it is to clean. For users who may suffer from incontinence, a vinyl seat cover offers a wipe-clean surface that is very durable. On the other hand, if you want something breathable, then nylon is a good option.

If you find that the standard seat that comes with your wheelchair doesn’t offer enough comfort or support, it is entirely possible to purchase an additional cushion to improve these things.

Vinyl Upholstery

Nylon Upholstery


  • Non-permeable fabric, suitable for incontinent sufferers

  • Easy to keep clean, can be wiped clean with a cloth

  • Vinyl is an extremely durable fabric and has a good lifespan

  • Nylon is a breathable fabric, this allows the user to remain cooler for longer and reduces perspiration

  • Nylon provides good shock absorbency, therefore offering the user a more comfortable ride, especially over uneven terrain


  • Vinyl is non-breathable, it can cause the wheelchair user to perspire more, which may increase the risk of developing pressure sores

  • Due to the porous nature of nylon, it can absorb liquids and dirt, which can make it harder to keep clean and hygienic


Wheelchair backrest

The height of the seat back is also an important feature to consider. In many cases, seat backs will be adjustable, giving you a little more versatility, as well as the option to move the backrest into a position that feels just right for you. In any case, the backrest should be high enough for you to sit back and be fully supported. You should take a measurement from your pelvis to your shoulders, when seated, to determine the correct backrest height.

Footplates and Armrests

Flip-up wheelchair armrests

A very significant feature of an armrest is that it is strong enough to offer support when making a transition. But these, along with your footplates, also give you greater comfort when sitting in the wheelchair.

When choosing armrests, we would suggest looking for those that can be flipped back, as this can make it easier to get in and out of the wheelchair, particularly if you need to perform a sideways transfer.

It’s important to look at the length of the armrests according to your lifestyle. For example, if you work at a desk then you may be better off with shorter armrests. But for people who need more detailed support, these may not be suitable, and longer armrests are essential. There are also options to adjust the height of the armrests, tailoring their comfort to you.

Where footplates are concerned, many will also have a height adjustment feature which is essential, especially if you are taller or shorter than average. The footplates should also swivel to the side to make getting in and out of the wheelchair easier.

Tilt and Recline

Reclining wheelchair

Some wheelchairs have the ability to move in different ways which accommodate the needs of the user. Reclining wheelchairs lay the user back, which can be useful for those who require assistance with things like hygiene and feeding. The reclined position is easy to adjust when compared to a tilt-in-space wheelchair and often provides the user with a more comfortable position for taking a nap.

Tilt-in-space wheelchairs still allow the user to be reclined, but rather than adjusting the backrest, the entire chair is tilted. This is advantageous for users who do not want or who cannot have their body position altered; the legs, hips, and lower back all remain in the same position as they do when seated. This is much better for posture and alignment.


Whichever type of wheelchair you purchase, it is crucial that you check the length of your warranty and what it covers. Since most people rely heavily on their wheelchairs to improve their mobility, the last thing anyone wants is to be without it.

When purchasing a powered wheelchair, you may notice that the wheelchair itself and the battery have different warranties. Typically the warranty for a battery is shorter.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that how you use the wheelchair may have an effect on the warranty. For example, you should look at whether you are required to have any services performed in order to meet warranty requirements.

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