How to Choose the Perfect Wheelchair, According to the World Health Organization

Communication, fit, training, and follow-up are vital when buying a wheelchair. Otherwise, you could be stuck with an expensive piece of equipment that doesn’t work for you or that could even cause an injury.

I pulled this important advice and more from new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. If you’re thinking about getting a wheelchair, these tips will help you find one that best meets your needs.

Communicate Clearly

According to the WHO, a healthcare provider should assess your physical condition, lifestyle, employment needs, home environment, and other factors. The assessment should include not just the wheelchair, but also accessories like cushions and postural support devices. 

Work closely with your healthcare provider during the assessment. Don’t assume they know what you want and need; tell them early and often so there’s no mistake. 

Ensure a Proper Fit

Young girl sitting in sports wheelchair

If you don’t get a wheelchair that fits properly, at best it won’t serve you as well as it could. At worst, it could jeopardize your long-term health and mobility.

That means you need to be actively involved in fitting your wheelchair both before and after purchase.

First, make sure your healthcare provider takes accurate measurements of your body before you buy anything.

Second, when the wheelchair arrives, your healthcare provider should work with you to adjust it and any accessories to make sure everything fits as well as it should.

Fitting also includes checking how well the wheelchair helps you perform daily activities, as well as making sure you can use it at home.

Fitting also includes checking how well the wheelchair helps you perform daily activities, as well as making sure you can use it at home (for example, that it fits through doorways).

Depending on your physical needs and the type of wheelchair you bought, you may have to check things like whether:

  • any communication-related assistive technology you use is compatible with it

  • you can reach brake levers and control levers or pushrims

  • the backrest gives your shoulders enough room to move for pushing.

When I bought my latest wheelchair (a lightweight manual one), the person who fitted it for me asked a lot of questions about how I intended to use it. I walk with crutches most of the time and primarily use my wheelchair when the alternative is walking a long distance.

When I bought my latest wheelchair, the person who fitted it for me asked a lot of questions about how I intended to use it.

That meant that weight and storage were most important to me, even at the expense of long-term sitting comfort. For example, I chose a short back because it weighs less and makes the wheelchair easier to store, and I don’t plan on sitting in the seat all day. I also don’t plan to use it in my home, so I chose a wider camber because I don’t have to worry about fitting the wheels through doorways.

After he understood my wants and needs, my healthcare provider took careful measurements to ensure that the wheelchair fit like a glove. And you know what? It does.

In fact, it might be the last wheelchair I ever need. All the effort was worth it.

Get Adequate Training

Person in wheelchair with healthcare professional

Training in how to use and maintain your new wheelchair is vital.

For one thing, it’s not always obvious how to use a wheelchair correctly, especially for newbies. 

Even if you have more experience, every wheelchair is different. Pushing with proper form and other activities require instruction from a qualified expert who can account for your specific physical needs and abilities, as well as the capabilities of your wheelchair.

WHO says both wheelchair users and caretakers should be trained in, for example:

  • Skills such as transfers and doing things while seated

  • Using and maintaining wheelchair components 

  • Guiding others who interact with the wheelchair user and/or caretaker

  • Maintaining and repairing the wheelchair.

Follow Up With a Qualified Healthcare Professional

Once you take your chair home, a qualified healthcare professional should follow up with you regularly.

Among other things, that person should see how well the wheelchair is meeting your needs. They also should quickly identify and resolve any issues you’re having with mobility, pain, wheelchair functionality, or anything else.

I was fortunate not to have significant problems with the wheelchair I bought. However, I did have some maintenance questions. I could have called the manufacturer or tried to Google the answers, but it was nice to talk to someone who already knew me and my wheelchair.

Wheelchair Access Poor in Much of the World

Wheelchairs are an essential tool that help millions around the world living with paralysis and other limitations thrive.

WHO estimates that 80 million people (or 1% of the world’s population) are likely to require a wheelchair to assist their mobility. This number is set to grow as the global population ages, especially if certain trends continue, such as an increase in chronic health conditions.

However, quality wheelchairs aren’t available everywhere. Many people find it difficult or impossible to obtain one and receive the training they need to use it effectively.

Guidelines Designed to Support Better Access

The WHO’s guidelines aim to help improve access to appropriate wheelchairs for everyone who needs them, including children, older people, people with disabilities, and people with chronic health conditions.

The guidelines are targeted primarily at policymakers, wheelchair service personnel, wheelchair user representative organizations, and other stakeholders with a role in providing wheelchairs. They provide a clear set of recommendations for developing or strengthening wheelchair provisions.

“Investing in wheelchair provision is an investment in a better future, and it is up to us to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to pursue their dreams.” — Dr. Hanan Balkhy of the WHO .

Although the guidelines aren’t binding, they will help governments implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and meet their sustainable development goals, such as ensuring healthy lives for people of all ages, making education accessible and equitable, and reducing inequalities.

“Investing in wheelchair provision is an investment in a better future, and it is up to us to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to pursue their dreams,” Dr. Hanan Balkhy of the WHO says in a press release.

The guidelines are relevant for all countries and apply to all wheelchair users and types of wheelchairs.

Guidelines Just a ‘Starting Point’

“While the process of guideline development is not without its challenges… and with a relative paucity of robust evidence, ultimately the document represents the best available evidence in the area of wheelchair service provision,” says Emma Smith of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA), which was a member of the guidelines development group. “Where evidence is lacking or needs further development, the experience of global experts in the area guides the recommendations.”

She adds that although some may feel the guidelines don’t go far enough, “They represent a starting point which can be adapted to a country’s context, and which can be improved on in the future, as we develop more robust evidence in the areas of policy and service delivery.”

“Ultimately, the purpose of these guidelines is to ensure that wheelchair users have timely access through wheelchair services that are people-centered and responsive to their needs,” the WHO says.

The guidelines were developed in collaboration with the International Society of Prosthetics and Orthotics and the International Society of Wheelchair Professionals. The National Institutes of Health also has guidelines for providing manual wheelchairs.

Do you have any of your own advice for buying a wheelchair? What has, and hasn’t, worked for you? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Disclaimer: This information is not meant to replace advice from a medical professional. You should consult your health care provider regarding specific medical concerns or treatment. TwP

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top