When you choose a new wheelchair, priorities tend to focus on fit and function. Can you propel the chair, does it fit in your house, your office, does it work for you in the community? But do you consider how you will transport your wheelchair to all of these places?
By Alli Speight, OT, ATP - Published February 1st, 2021
Considering how a wheelchair is going to be transported in a vehicle is essential. There are many aspects of manual wheelchairs which make them more mobile compared to their power wheelchair counterparts; however, even within manual wheelchairs there are details you should consider to simplify the transportation experience.
If you have the opportunity to assess your vehicle and the wheelchair prior to purchase, you may be able to select some details that will make the two devices more compatible with your lifestyle.
There are some things you should consider about your vehicle. Does it have two doors or four? Two doors typically open wider and make access easier. Do you have a hatchback or a traditional trunk? The configuration may impact loading and unloading, or if you need to take off components.
Know where you want to store the chair for transport - people may choose to place their wheelchair in the passenger seat, the back seat or their trunk depending on their ability to ambulate, the car size and other passengers in the vehicle. While it is not a top priority, but vehicle transport is an essential task and should be considered.
What should you look for in a wheelchair that you will be transporting regularly?
If you or a family member are lifting your wheelchair into a vehicle, weight is a primary consideration. Obviously, the lighter the chair the easier it will be, but it also has a significant impact for the wheelchair user as it will impact the work of the upper extremities. Since you are using your arms all day, for propulsion and other daily activities, the strain from lifting manual wheelchair into a vehicle can be excessive. One research study finds the most strenuous activity for manual wheelchair users are reported as entering and leaving a car, ascending inclines and performing heavy lifting with arms.1 All of these activities would most likely be done if a client was placing their own wheelchair in a vehicle and then going on an outing. On a self-report survey measuring shoulder pain during daily living the most identified problem was the act of the ‘wheelchair transfer in and out of car’.2 Since there is so much variability, one constant we know is keeping the weight of the wheelchair as light as possible.
For those needing to make their wheelchair more compact, frame design plays an important role on where and how a wheelchair will fit in a vehicle. Your selection of a folding or rigid chair will determine where you will store it, and if you need to remove parts for transport.
Folding: A wheelchair which can traditionally fold becomes narrower and can fit behind a driver or passenger seat or lay flat in a trunk. Even though a folding wheelchair seems convenient, this process may still involve removing footrest hangers, armrests, rear wheels and other accessories due to size or overall weight of the chair and accessories. Most folding wheelchairs do not have folding back canes which means the height of the wheelchair is still very tall and this can limit how the wheelchair fits through door or trunk openings. Since Folding wheelchairs vary by manufacturer the width of the wheelchair when folded may vary, and you should determine if your choice will fit properly in your vehicle.
Rigid: While the term “rigid” may imply that the wheelchair is not convenient for transport, some rigid wheelchairs actually work better than a folding wheelchair depending on the user and the vehicle. A rigid wheelchair will inherently weigh less and typically includes folding back canes, making the height of the wheelchair lower. Though they do not fold in the traditional way with a crossbrace, the dual tube or cantilever rigid wheelchair can take up less space than a folder.
Watch our Ambassador Bob Vogel demonstrate how he is loading, and unloading his APEX C rigid wheelchair in and out of his car:
Options & Accessories
Ensuring your options and accessories are transport compatible is important. Since some things may need to be removed for transport, they should do so in an easy and convenient way. Common things to be removed are rear wheels, armrests, footrests, anti-tippers, back supports and cushions. Try to choose items that are quick release for easy removal and re-install, and also durable to withstand everyday use.
Once your wheelchair is in the vehicle you may have to consider options for making sure the wheelchair stays in place. This can involve ensuring wheel locks are engaged or adding options such as un-occupied wheelchair tie-downs to safeguard the wheelchair will not pose a safety risk when driving.
Other Transport Options
If placing the wheelchair in the vehicle independently is not a possibility, there are still other options. There are after-market devices which such as robotic arms and car toppers that can make it possible. Finding the right match for you, your wheelchair and your vehicle will be important!
No matter the method of getting your wheelchair into a vehicle ensure it is safe, user friendly and maintainable. Being able to assess the wheelchair with your vehicle to trial transfers and storage is important. Try different tactics and ask other wheelchair users or clinicians for tips and assistance to find the perfect method for you.
Note: Make sure to refer to the manufacturer's guide to read recommended guidelines specific to your wheelchair.
References 1. Fliess-Douer O, Vanlandewijck YC, Van der Woude LH. Most essential wheeled mobility skills for daily life: an international survey among paralympic wheelchair athletes with spinal cord injury. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2012; 93(4):629–35. [PubMed: 22360975] 2. Samuelsson KAM, Tropp H , Gerdle B. Shoulder pain and its consequences in paraplegic spinal cord-injured, wheelchair users. Spinal Cord (2004) 42, 41–46
About Alli Speight, OT, ATP
Alli holds a Bachelor of Kinesiology and a Master of Occupational Therapy. Thanks to her clinical experience in the community, in long-term care and with veterans, Alli has extensive knowledge of positioning and mobility. This has helped her see new ways of designing the wheelchair prescription process. Alli gives training throughout North America, namely at the CSMC, ISS and ATSA conferences.