Thanks to Mark Hanzel for contributing this article to Hamilton Spinal Injury Lawyers. Mark was rendered paraplegic after being hit on his bicycle 16 years ago in Ottawa. Today he, his wife and 2 kids lives in Austin, Texas and is a speaker and regular contributor to educational publications.
If you thought buying a new vehicle or bicycle pre-injury was difficult, wait until it’s time that you start shopping for a wheelchair! It can be an overwhelming task. It is a purchase you need to definitely research before you buy, consult with experts (your doctor, your occupational therapist, your physical therapist), talk with other people already in wheelchairs, talk with wheelchair retailers and rehab centers. I would highly recommend working with your Hamilton spinal injury lawyer and occupational therapist together to find the perfect fit for you, comfort wise and cost wise.
You are going to have to make your decision for your primary chair by process of elimination in some ways. You may acquire additional specialty wheelchairs over time for different purposes – for example, what is your need for your wheelchair: Permanent or temporary? How is your upper body strength? Are you a paraplegic or quadriplegic? Do you need to look at weight or size restrictions? Do you want to buy new or used?
Keep in mind that this is a very expensive purchase that must last spinal cord injury victims for many years. Your insurance or accident benefits carrier won’t be overly excited to pay for a new one on a regular basis. Also remember – your needs in wheelchairs will change over time. Most wheelchairs, like everything else, have a limited lifespan. Wheelchairs are very expensive because they must be custom manufactured from specialty materials such as titanium. Each individual requiring a wheelchair needs to be measured and it is very important to be sure to purchase a wheelchair that fits you. In order to help you with your purchase, I have put together extensive checklists below.
One accessory you must purchase when you purchase a wheelchair is a wheelchair cushion. Many different types and styles are available. Each different type of cushion has its advantages and disadvantages. You will have to figure out what works best for you in terms of postural support, your skin condition, your mobility requirments, your height and your weight. Wheelchair cushions, no matter if foam, gel or air floatation, increase sitting comfort will help prevent pressure sores. It is also possible to purchase additional optional accessories for wheelchairs like bags, backpacks, trays, cup holders, etc.
You can purchase a brand new wheelchair or you can purchase a used chair. If you purchase a new chair, you will most likely be purchasing it through a medical supply store or similar retail store. Many people actually now buy their wheelchairs off the internet. The disadvantages to purchasing a wheelchair you cannot see before you buy are that it may not fit you, it may have something wrong with it you could not tell because you could not personally inspect it before purchase. You may not get exactly what you paid for. You may not get your purchase at all. If you purchase a new wheelchair off the Internet, make sure you buy it from a reputable Canadian accessibility and mobility store.
There are several different types of wheelchairs:
1. Standard Manual Wheelchairs: for use less than four hours a day.
Wheelchairs are like cars in one way. They require routine maintenance and they do break down. I found a general set of issues to consider in the selection of a wheelchair by Diability awareness speaker Gary Karp, who has written many books on spinal cord injury and related issues:
One consideration in the selection of a manual wheelchair is who will be propelling the chair. Is the injured person going to be propelling the chair or is the person going to have someone pushing the chair all the time? This is a major factor in the choice of a manual chair. Chairs that the injured person will propel have very large wheels in the back of the wheelchair and small wheels in the front. Chairs that another person typically propels have four small wheels. In selcting a manual wheelchair, consider the following:
1. What is the frame type? – Rigid or folding frame. Rigid frames cannot be folded. Folding frames can obviously be folded.
2. How is the upholstery? – You must consider the type of upholstery you want on the wheelchair. Bear in mind you may be dealing with extreme heat, extreme cold, rain, snow in Hamilton, and everything in-between.
The strength in your upper body is something you will have to build up over time. It is important to use proper pushing techniques because using a manual wheelchair puts abnormal stress on your wrists, arms, and shoulders. This can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrists and elbow and shoulder joints wearing out. To learn the proper technique for pushing a manual wheelchair, talk to your rehabilitation hospital.
These wheelchairs still have to be moved by hand. The power assist feature is controlled by a joystick and is used for going up a hill and for additional braking down a hill. The drawback to these wheelchairs is the batteries are even more expensive than batteries for power chairs and have about half the charge range, meaning they need to be recharged more often. Powered wheelchairs are the way to go for the quadriplegic or tetraplegic spinal cord injury survivor who does not have sufficient control or strength in the upper body for a manual chair. Many advances have been made in powered wheelchairs in recent years. Here is a quick list of the some of the variety of choices available in powered wheelchairs:
1. Rear Wheel Drive: power is behind the person so the person feels as if he or she is being pushed from behind.
The controller on a powered wheelchair is an important consideration. A joystick is the typical method of operating a powered wheelchair. If the spinal cord injury survivor does not have sufficient use of his or her arms then another form of controller must be used. Swing away joystick controllers are also available and are better for some situations. Wheelchairs can be controlled through a sipping or puffing breathing system, a system of switches built into the headrest, or by means of a switch and scanner so that a finger tap or toe tap can be used to control movement.
There are several general considerations in the purchase of a powered wheelchair:
Over the years and in support groups (yes…I am still in support group meetings) I have heard and read that many people are very frustrated because they have found “the perfect chair” for their needs and they cannot get their insurance company of accident benefits to pay for it. Many provinces have grant programs to assist with paying for wheelchairs. If you can find a local spinal cord injury support group in Hamilton, someone there may also know of other funding programs. Also check with the professionals at the Hamilton Regional Rehabilitation Centre.
Wheelchairs are one of the most common frustrations I have heard discussed in my support group meetings people complain they cannot get their chairs properly repaired or parts of the chair wore out before they thought was a reasonable time. For any wheelchair you purchase new, the quality and availability of customer service is very important. Talk with retailers, people who have been in chairs for many years, and anyone else you can find to learn about the customer service of the company’s product(s) you are interested in. Someone years ago shared this wheelchair checklist great in helping me get a proper fit into a wheelchair:
The above lists are by no means exhaustive. Good luck in finding a chair that fits you comfortably! Buying a wheelchair is an expensive investment and it’s important to no doubt find the right chair that meets your needs and requirements. Expect to pay anywhere from $500.00 to $1000.00 for a good manual wheelchair, and from $3500 to $10,000.00 for a good power wheelchair. Lso expect to pay anywhere from $50.00 to $100.00 for good cushions, whether air, gel or foam.
I hope this article was informative and I wish you the best of luck finding your suitable wheelchair. Purchasing a suitable wheelchair will no doubt lead to dramatic improvements in your mobility, independence and overall quality of life. Try your best to pick the right one!
*This information has been obtained from our experience and knowledge of spinal cord injury law as well as Medical Peer Reviewed Journals and Medical Studies from SCIRE (Spinal Cord Injury Research Evidence)