Types of Power Wheelchairs: A Four-Wheeled Field Guide

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There are several reasons why someone might benefit from an electric wheelchair. It could be that they were in an accident or have a condition that makes walking difficult or impossible. 

Whatever the circumstance, there is a power wheelchair for every person to match every type of lifestyle, and purchasing an electric wheelchair can be a big step towards regaining independence. However, the same market diversity that makes power wheelchairs possible for all users can also be overwhelming if you’re unfamiliar with what’s available. Here’s your four-wheeled field guide to the different types of power wheelchairs. 

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Folding powered wheelchairs

An electric wheelchair is bulky and can be difficult to take anywhere outside of the user’s home setting. However, some options make it easier for users to bring their electric wheelchair along with them on extended trips.

A folding wheelchair is exactly what it sounds like. The entire thing can easily fold and fit into tight spaces, such as the trunk of a car. This portable chair is a fantastic option for traveling by plane or even across town.

However, one downside to folding wheelchairs is that they tend to be lighter frames than standard wheelchairs. As such, these chairs have a lower weight capacity in general.

Front-wheel drive power wheelchairs

A front-wheel-drive model has two large front wheels and two smaller rear caster wheels.

The front wheels are the ones that drive the wheelchair, while the back ones provide stability. Users tend to enjoy front wheelchairs for their smooth ride. Front-wheel models also tend to have an easier time maneuvering over small obstacles, making them perfect if you use your chair over uneven terrain quite often.

With the drive wheels at the front, some users have a little trouble acclimating to the controls. These chairs aren’t as intuitive as other models, but they can be easier to control with alternative means, such as chin control.

One thing to note is these models tend to have a wider turning radius than most chairs, so they’re not the best choice if your home is full of tight corners.

Mid-wheel drive power wheelchairs

Mid-wheel drive chairs have six wheels, with the drive wheels being two larger wheels in the middle of the chair. The other four wheels (two front, two back) are casters that offer added stability.

There are a couple of appealing elements on mid-wheel chairs. First off, mid-wheel options can turn on a dime, thanks to the drive wheel being right in the middle of the chair. It makes these chairs excellent for tight turns. Second, the four support wheels make this chair extremely stable. Even on uneven ground, it is very difficult to make it tip.

However, one downside to mid-wheel chairs is that they have six wheels instead of the standard four, making them a tad bumpy. Mid-wheel chairs won’t have as smooth a ride as the front or rear wheel options, but the chair makes up for it in maneuverability.

Rear-wheel-drive power wheelchairs

The rear-wheel chair has two large drive wheels in the back and two smaller casters in the front. Like the front-wheel wheelchairs, the rear-wheel also provides a very smooth ride. One of the upsides of rear-wheel drive is these chairs have an easy time plowing over soft ground.

One downside to this chair, however, is the maneuverability. The drive wheels at the back have a larger turning radius and have difficulty getting over even small obstacles. Even with a small curb, the rear wheels have to provide enough power to get the smaller front wheels over it first. When that isn’t possible, the user finds themselves stuck.

As such, despite the smooth ride, rear-wheel chairs are harder to find these days and are rarely recommended, with users opting instead for the front or mid-wheel varieties.

Portable power wheelchairs

Many electric wheelchairs are known for being large and bulky. This unwieldiness can make them difficult to fit down tight hallways or even through a standard door frame.

Portable electric wheelchairs are built on a more petite frame to fit in tight spaces easily. A portable electric wheelchair can also be taken apart and stowed easily in a small area for traveling. While there is a little more work to it than a folding electric wheelchair, it’s still a great travel option with the added benefit of using it in cramped quarters.

The downside to portable power wheelchairs is that they tend not to last as long. The frame is lightweight and not nearly as robust as a standard power wheelchair. However, the maneuverability and portability make it an excellent option for a user who is active and always ready for the next adventure.

Bariatric power wheelchairs

Bariatric chairs are designed to carry users of a larger size. With a robust frame and heavy-duty build, these wheelchairs can accommodate users weighing anywhere from 400 lbs to 700lbs. Bariatric chairs are also an excellent option for users who like to spend a lot of time outdoors. The sturdy build won’t be damaged or fall apart as quickly as other chair models. 

Also, the motor on these chairs tends to be stronger, providing more torque to get over rough terrain. Lastly, bariatric power wheelchairs tend to come with either never-flat or solid tires. You’ll never have to worry about popping a tire on a sharp rock or stick with this chair.

Wrap up

There is a power wheelchair for every lifestyle and personality. From a rugged, heavy-duty chair to a swift little traveler, the chair should be paired perfectly for the person spending the most time in it.

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