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Electric Wheelchairs: Types and Reviews of Powerchairs

Updated/Revised Date: 2022/04/04
Author: Disabled World - Contact Details
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Synopsis: Information on types of electric wheelchairs including finding a suitable powerchair to suit the elderly or person with a disability. Powerchairs are four-wheeled or six-wheeled and non-folding, however, some folding designs exist, and other designs may have some ability to partially dismantle for transit. Four general styles of powerchair drive systems exist front, center, or rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. The user typically controls speed and direction by operating a joystick on a controller. Many other input devices can be used if the user lacks coordination or the use of the hands or fingers, such as chin controls and puff/sip scanners.


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A motorized wheelchair, powerchair, electric wheelchair or electric-powered wheelchair (EPW) is defined as a wheelchair that is propelled utilizing an electric motor rather than manual power. Motorized wheelchairs are useful for those unable to propel a manual wheelchair, or who may need to use a wheelchair for distances or over terrain which would be fatiguing in a manual wheelchair. They may also be used not just by people with 'traditional' mobility impairments, but also by people with cardiovascular and fatigue-based conditions. The electric-powered wheelchair was said to be invented by George Klein who worked for the National Research Council of Canada, to assist injured veterans during World War II.

Powerchairs are generally four-wheeled or six-wheeled and non-folding, however some folding designs exist and other designs may have some ability to partially dismantle for transit. Four general styles of powerchair drive systems exist: front, center or rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. Powered wheels are typically somewhat larger than the trailing/castoring wheels, while castoring wheels are typically larger than the castors on a manual chair. Center wheel drive powerchairs have castors at both front and rear for a six-wheel layout.

A powerchair can be used by someone who hasn't got the dexterity or mobility, perhaps, to drive a mobility scooter due to arm, hand, shoulder or more general disabling conditions, and do not have the leg strength to propel a manual chair with their feet. EPWs can offer various powered functions such as tilt, recline, leg elevation, seat elevation, and others useful or necessary to health and function. A powerchair user might also have special seating or arm and leg rest requirements that are better served by a powerchair than a mobility scooter.

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Rear image of a male and female using electric wheelchairs on a country road.
Rear image of a male and female using electric wheelchairs on a country road.

The technology involved in electric wheelchairs is similar to that of mobility scooters, and some powerchair manufacturers are offering models that look more like a mobility scooter than a traditional wheelchair.

Today you will find three general styles of electric-powered chairs (EPWs). Each style of wheelchair has particular handling characteristics. EPWs are also divided by seat type; some models resemble manual chairs, with a sling-style seat and frame, whereas others have 'captain's chair' seating like that of an automobile. EPWs run the gamut from small and portable models, which can be folded or disassembled, to large and heavy full-featured chairs (these are often called 'rehab' chairs).

The user typically controls speed and direction by operating a joystick on a controller. Many other input devices can be used if the user lacks coordination or the use of the hands or fingers, such as chin controls and puff/sip scanners.

Powerchairs are usually controlled by a joystick on the armrest, which can be fitted on either armrest to suit left or right-handed use. The arm rest can usually be swung out of the way so that the user can get closer to a desk or table, for example.

If a joystick control isn't appropriate for the user's needs, there are other methods of operating the powerchair, including a head controller, a sip and puff tube, fingertip control or foot control for those with C2-C3 spinal cord lesions or head injuries (the user blows into a tube located near the mouth, which controls the movement of the chair).

A powerchair or electric wheelchair can bring independence and freedom to those currently reliant on others. Once you have decided on a powerchair rather than a mobility scooter or wheelchair, there are still plenty of other choices to be made. Including the price, the style and size of the powerchair, how portable the powerchair is, and how far it goes between charges.

Traditionally, power-chairs were not designed to be transported, and so were very difficult to dismantle. However, nowadays, most electric wheelchairs are transportable, and some are effortless to dismantle. Powerchairs are using technology and features found on mobility scooters such as easy to remove battery packs, and easy to dissemble components that may mean the user doesn't need any additional help to transport or recharge the electric wheelchair.

Powerchairs are usually more customizable than disabled scooters, and can offer different types of control method and seating. For example, the range of the powerchair between charges may not be as important as it's having an electric lift so that you can reach shelves or cupboards. It might be more important that it is available with a specialist seat, rather than dismantling to fit in the car.

Until recently, electric wheelchairs were predominantly designed for indoor use, this has now changed as the technology and user requirements have changed. It is now possible to buy powerchairs that are equally suited to indoor and outdoor use.

Today, electric wheelchairs are available with a range of well over 20 miles and a speed of up to 6 mph. These powerchairs come with outdoor style wheels and tires and look more rugged and suitable for outdoor use. They sometimes have additional rear wheels to aid stability when off-road, for example. These models are much more suitable for outdoor use than indoor use. Rear or mid-wheel drive powerchair are the most popular and ideal for using outdoors as well as indoors.

If the powerchair will be used in the home as well as outdoors, it is important to ensure that the powerchair is suitable, comfortable and provides the appropriate level of support. A 6 mph high-performance electric wheelchair designed for use outside is not necessarily suitable for all-day use in a small flat. As powerchair users often spend more time in their powerchairs, the powerchair needs to be right for the environment it's going to be used in. There is no point having a big high performance powerchair if it's too big to use indoors, or a small compact powerchair if it is to be used primarily outdoors. The powerchair performance may be an important factor if it is to replace a car, or provide independence and allow extended journeys.

Different users will need different sorts of seat, leg rests and armrests as they provide the user with comfort and stability. A powered seat, tilt and recline back, or electric leg rests might also be an optional accessory. If the user will be spending a lot of time in the powerchair, then a wheelchair cushion, especially a memory foam cushion, will be a wise investment to ensure comfort and help to prevent pressure sores.

Powerchairs charge in the same way that mobility scooters do. The battery charger will usually plug into the powerchair control unit whilst the batteries are attached. This means that the user doesn't have to worry about lifting or refitting batteries.

Most models of electric wheelchair have a range of additional extras available. These can include different leg rests, armrests, oxygen tank holders, and in some cases a different seating system. Some powerchairs are available with elevating seats so that the user can reach items on a work surface, on a shelf, or in a cupboard, that are normally unreachable for powerchair users.

Another option for someone who uses a traditional style of wheelchair is to add a battery pack and motor to the wheelchair. This will then turn the wheelchair into an attendant controlled powerchair. This is a good option if the attendant regularly pushes the wheelchair up hills, or wants to be able to be able to go up hills. The only downside to this option is that the user isn't independent and has to rely on someone to push them around. However, this can be a good compromise between a traditional wheelchair and a powerchair.

Mobility Devices - Facts and Statistics

Further Details:

1) Mobility Device Use in the United States (PDF Report)

2) Mobility Device Statistics - United States - The University of California - Disability Statistics Center - (2013-04-22)

A powerchair can help to maintain or bring back independence, as they are easy to operate and maintain, electric wheelchairs can make a significant difference to the quality of life.

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