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Buying a Wheelchair? Things to Look for in Your First Manual Wheelchair

selecting perfect wheelchair for your use
Samyak Lalit
Samyak Lalit | January 1, 2022 (Last update: January 28, 2023)

Samyak Lalit is an author and disability rights activist. He is a polio survivor and the founder of projects like Kavita Kosh, Gadya Kosh, TechWelkin, WeCapable, Dashamlav and Viklangta Dot Com. Website:

Buying your first wheelchair is indeed a big decision to make. First of all, this in itself is a tough decision whether to keep pushing yourself to walk or to settle in wheelchair. But when you eventually decide to use a wheelchair, you would want to buy just the right one. Most people are not really sure how to select a wheelchair that will serve their need. Well, be happy that you have landed on the right page! In this article, WeCapable is sharing tips on selecting the right wheelchair for yourself or a loved one who needs a wheelchair for mobility.

Is Wheelchair an Important Thing?

There are people who have no option but to use a wheelchair for moving from one place to another (even within their house). Then there is another category of people who need a wheelchair to make life ‘easier’. These people may live their life without a wheelchair though it takes a lot of effort to get the things done. It is this category of people who see a wheelchair as an option and often wonder whether they should buy a wheelchair or not. If you are sure you need a wheelchair, you can skip to the next section.

You need to understand the importance of a wheelchair if you are someone who has been living a life without a wheelchair but now your deteriorating physical condition is making you reconsider a wheelchair as a supporting device. The first thing you need to understand is that a wheelchair is an aid that is meant to make life easier for you. A wheelchair may be seen as a symbol of disability but it never disables a person. A wheelchair, in fact, makes a disabled individual a little more ‘abled’. You can read “Should I walk or use a wheelchair: A huge dilemma” – an opinion of a person who has undergone a similar dilemma.

A wheelchair is definitely an important thing which you need, if –

  • You cannot walk unassisted
  • You need to rest just after walking a few steps
  • You cannot walk a longer distance without the assistance of someone else
  • You struggle too much in walking and maintaining your body balance

If you are in any of the above categories, a wheelchair will give you more independence. However, for propelling a manual wheelchair you need some arm strength and the ability to sit unassisted. If that’s not the case you might need an electric wheelchair.

selecting perfect wheelchair for your use

Do You Need a Prescription for Getting a Wheelchair?

Though your doctor may suggest you to use a wheelchair after assessing your physical condition there’s no requirement of a prescription for purchasing or using a wheelchair. So, if you feel that you need a wheelchair, you can get one without a doctor’s prescription. However, you may require a prescription if you are planning to use an insurance benefit for purchasing a wheelchair.

It must be noted that the provision for getting a wheelchair through insurance benefits is not applicable for every country. You may need to talk to your insurance provider to know the exact rules of your country. If your insurance can be used to cover the expense of purchasing a wheelchair you will need to verify your need for a wheelchair with a doctor’s prescription.

Questions to Ask Yourself before Choosing a Wheelchair

There are a few questions that you need to ask yourself before considering different wheelchair options available in the market. These questions will narrow down the options for you and make it easier to buy the right wheelchair for your need.

  • How often the wheelchair will be used? – A person who will be using a wheelchair occasionally and a person who will spend most of the waking hours in a wheelchair will definitely need two different sort of wheelchairs. The hours of usage will also affect the lifespan of the wheelchair.
  • Where will you be using your wheelchair? – at home or outside? – You need to know your requirement before purchasing a wheelchair. A wheelchair being used outside will need to be sturdier than the wheelchair that will be used inside your home. It may also need to have more security features like a seat belt and anti-trip wheels. Wheelchair for the home purpose might need to be compact for narrow doorways.
  • Will the wheelchair need to be transported? – If your wheelchair needs to be transported then you will need foldable options. If your wheelchair need not be transported you do not necessarily require a foldable wheelchair.
  • How active or passive is your lifestyle? – Someone with an active lifestyle, for example, a para sportsperson, will need a different design of wheelchair as compared to someone with a regular or passive lifestyle.
  • How physically fit you are? – Someone with a disability in their lower limb but a strong torso can manage well in the standard wheelchair. But, someone with balance issues in their upper body might need extra back or side supports. Someone with a lesser grip in their hands might need customized rims on the rear wheel. In short, before buying a wheelchair you need to be aware of your physical strengths and limitations.

Choose the Right Sized Wheelchair

The size of a wheelchair is the most important thing to consider while choosing a wheelchair. If you need a wheelchair for temporary use then you can choose any standard wheelchair available in the market. But, if you have to use a wheelchair permanently or for a longer period you should get a custom-made wheelchair appropriate for you. The size of a wheelchair plays a very important role in keeping your posture correct and making it easy for you to propel your wheelchair.

You might know that wheelchairs do not come with pre-defined sizes like undergarments. So, what size are we talking about? The size of wheelchairs is typically determined by the size of the seat. This size includes both width and depth of the seat.

  • Determining correct width of a wheelchair seat – A person’s hip from one side to the other is measured while the person sits straight and two inches are added to the measurement to determine the right width of the seat required by that person.
  • Determining the correct depth of a wheelchair seat – The measurement from the back of the person’s hip to the back of the knee is taken while the person sits straight. By subtracting one inch from the measurement we get the right measurement of the depth of the wheelchair seat required by a person.

Check for Other Important Factors

Once the size of the wheelchair seat has been determined you need to check for other important factors. You must know that every part of a wheelchair will have an impact on your overall experience. So, it is important to pay attention to each of them. Read on to know what things you need to pay attention to.

Arm Rest Type and Height

One of the important things that affect your security and comfort level on your wheelchair is your armrest. The first thing to consider in the armrest is its height. You can easily measure the ideal armrest height you require by sitting straight and folding your elbow at 90 degrees. The distance from the seat to your elbow is considered the ideal height for wheelchair height.

Once the height is decided it’s time for you to choose the appropriate type of armrest as per your requirement. There are typically two types of armrest for you to choose from:

  1. Full Length – As the name suggests, these armrests cover the full-length form back of the seat to the front of the seat. This is best suited for people who frequently need to do stand-up pivot transfer. This provides the person with proper support to push themselves to stand up.
  2. Desk Length – These armrests are shorter than the full length and make it easier to get closer to the table or desk. This is best suited for people who need to do a desk job.

You may also get the option for a height-adjustable armrest. So, if that feels more appropriate for your need you can check the availability with different manufacturers.

Footrest Style and Height

The next thing you need to check is the style and height of the footrest in your wheelchair. The height for a footrest is measured from the back of the knee to the heel of the foot while the person is seated. This height is especially important for a person who has muscle power and may need to use their feet at any point to propel themselves in the chair or move. This measurement determines the overall height of the wheelchair. A wheelchair made with this height makes it easier for the wheelchair user to bend (if they can) and reach the ground for picking up things.

The standard style of a footrest is the one with foldable footrests – one for each foot. But, there are various ways in which footrests can be customized according to the specific needs of the user. A few examples are given below –

  • Joint Footrest – Footrest can be customized in a way that it becomes a flat platform on which both legs can be rested. This customization serves the need of the users who frequently need to get down on the floor and get back on the wheelchair. The footrest is designed in such a way that the user can use it as a mid-step to sit while climbing down to the floor or up to the wheelchair. (Note: A wheelchair not customized in this manner will trip over if a person tries to sit on the footrest)
  • Leg Elevating Footrest – People who have been told to keep their legs elevated by their doctor due to issues like swelling, injury, or edema, etc. may need a leg elevating footrest. This is the type of footrest in which there’s an option to lock the footrest in the elevated position. It can be brought back to normal position too.
  • Articulating footrest – This customization is normally done for taller people. The footrest can be extended in length while elevating.

Height of Backrest

The height of the backrest depends entirely on the strength of the upper body of the wheelchair user. A person with a stronger upper body and good balance can do with a shorter height of the backrest. Those with the additional requirement of back support need a higher backrest. There’s an option for reclining backrest too.

Weight Considerations

Wheelchairs are built to accommodate certain weight limits so it is necessary for you to know your weight and purchase a wheelchair that is perfect for your weight.

The other weight consideration is about the weight of the wheelchair itself. If the user needs to travel frequently she might want to buy a wheelchair that she can fold and place in her vehicle herself. So, it is important to buy a wheelchair appropriate for the upper body strength of the user. Persons with weaker body strength will need a lighter wheelchair.

Wheels and Rims of the Wheelchair

A discussion about a wheelchair can never be complete without the discussion about wheels. There are varieties of options available for wheelchair wheels. The type of wheels you choose will depend on the surface you’ll need to propel. If you need to go out often you’ll need to choose wheels that are low-maintenance and durable.

The next thing you need to consider is the rim on your rear wheels. It is this rim that you’ll need to propel your wheelchair. Persons who need to go out more often need to pay more attention to the rim. The design must be such that it helps you to grip the rim more securely. People with lesser grip in their hands can either get their push rim customized or install a grip rim on the standard rim.

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"Buying a Wheelchair? Things to Look for in Your First Manual Wheelchair." Web. April 23, 2024. <>, "Buying a Wheelchair? Things to Look for in Your First Manual Wheelchair." Accessed April 23, 2024.

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2 responses to “Buying a Wheelchair? Things to Look for in Your First Manual Wheelchair”

  1. Avatar Dianne Miller says:

    I appreciate reading your article about the wheelchair. My grandfather needs a wheelchair. I find it helpful when you discuss customized wheelchair. I agree that the size of a wheelchair is the most important thing to consider while choosing a wheelchair. If you need a wheelchair for temporary use, you can select any standard wheelchair available on the market. But, if you have to use a wheelchair permanently or for extended periods, you should get a custom-made wheelchair. The size of a wheelchair plays a significant role in keeping your posture correct and making it easy for you to propel your wheelchair.

  2. Avatar Lillian says:

    I have my wheelchair fitting tomorrow and I’ve been searching for a while for an article like this. Most of what I was finding before I stumbled here was compilations of different types of wheelchairs and where to buy them, and some articles for people caring for aging adults losing mobility with aging.
    I’m under 25yrs old and looking for things to think about before the fitting for my wheelchair as someone who is ambulatory but missing out on an active life because I can only walk short distances until I need to sit or lie down.
    This is so helpful I really appreciate that you published this

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