Since wheelchairs are probably the most complicated and expensive piece of medical equipment a consumer may purchase, here is some basic information.
There are two broad categories: manual and powered. Manual wheelchairs are propelled by the rider or pushed by the caregiver. The standard wheelchair, the product most commonly used until the 1990s, is a heavy, difficult-to-maneuver chair. These wheelchairs are used in hospitals and nursing homes because they are the least expensive and serve the immediate purpose of transporting a patient from one floor to another. They are not suited for continuous use and require a good deal of energy to propel or push.
Lightweight manual chairs are the most commonly used type today. They range in weight from 12 pounds to 45 pounds. Most are collapsible, which is extremely useful for travel. Some wheelchair users prefer the "sports lightweights" even if they do not participate in wheelchair sports, because they are easy to propel.
Customized chairs are necessary for people with particular conditions or limitations. For example, a person who has had a stroke may not be able to propel a wheelchair using both arms and will need a wheelchair adapted for that problem. Third-party payers may balk at paying for these expensive customized chairs, so be prepared for a lengthy approval process or a big bill.
Powered wheelchairs use either gel cell or wet cell batteries that must be recharged regularly. The user can operate the wheelchair with only a finger or even by mouth with a straw. These wheelchairs are particularly useful for people with limited upper body strength. However, they are heavy and bulky.
The choice of wheelchair should depend on the way in which the chair will be used and the particular functional limitations of the user. Some people have two wheelchairs - a manual one for indoors and a powered one for outdoors. If the residence has been adapted for a roll-in shower, a special shower wheelchair is available as well.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has approved a complete set of standards for wheelchairs consisting of standard methods of disclosing information, such as the way in which the width of a seat is measured, and tests to determine the chair's strength. Potential purchasers can ask manufacturers if their specifications conform to these standards. If they do not, ask for an explanation of how they differ.
Like any other machine, wheelchairs must be maintained properly. The manufacturer's guide will offer instructions for regular maintenance, and these should be followed carefully. Also like other machines, wheelchairs break down. Ask the vendor how they handle repairs, whether they have 24-hour emergency service, whether they supply a loaner and how long a typical repair takes. Once a user gets accustomed to a particular wheelchair it is difficult to be without it.