Fitting someone for a wheelchair might not be simple, but it’s a crucial step toward maintaining both their comfort and safety. While some wheelchair manufacturers take a one size fits all approach, most recognize that different body types, medical needs, and abilities require a custom-tailored fit.
Fortunately, selecting the right wheelchair is easier than you might think. Here is everything you need to know about wheelchair sizing, including special considerations for safety, comfort, and fit.
Three Crucial Wheelchair Sizing Elements
While many measurements influence the overall design and fit of a wheelchair, three elements are most crucial:
The wheelchair user’s height
- The person’s weight
- The strength and independence of the user
- User Height and Device Height
Since every body has unique proportions, finding the right fit often depends on a combination of factors. Starting with user height helps eliminate many fit issues and focuses on fitting the wheelchair to the user’s body, rather than the other way around.
For taller individuals, a wheelchair with a higher seat is preferable. A high seat ensures their comfort, as their legs and feet will rest at the proper angle and prevents back and other pain from posture problems. Appropriate seat height also makes it easier to get in and out of the chair as necessary.
On the same note, a person of smaller stature will struggle to get in and out of a wheelchair with a too-high seat. Especially for users who need to be able to get into their chairs independently, the height and accessibility of the chair is a determining factor for fit.
User Weight and Device Construction
A person’s body weight is another vital consideration when sourcing a wheelchair. Balancing the device’s construction and weight capacity with a user’s mobility needs, size, and storage or equipment requirements can become a challenge.
For people who are overweight, selecting the right chair, typically with a bariatric rating, is critical for safety. A heavy-duty device that has a high enough rating to accommodate the user means fewer safety risks while the chair is in use.
Keep in mind that most wheelchair users store additional items on their wheelchairs. From a backpack hanging from the rear to stowing medical equipment on the sides or underneath the chair, many people who use wheelchairs need to carry belongings with them. A wheelchair frame may need to handle an extra ten to 20 pounds safely.
Weight distribution is also an important factor, especially for users who are operating their wheelchairs independently. For example, a heavy bag slung across the back of a chair can easily topple the device when the user gets out of the seat. Consider the materials of the chair and how well the weight distributes over the frame. Try a tip test if possible to ensure the chair remains upright, even with a weight imbalance.
To reduce the odds of an injury, carefully read weight limit labels and factor in additional equipment and belongings in the calculations.
If the user (plus their belongings) exceeds the weight limit of the wheelchair, the components could break down over time. The worst-case scenario involves the individual falling out of the chair, which creates another set of health and safety problems.
User Strength and Mobility
Regardless of a person’s height or weight, physical abilities and strength can influence a wheelchair’s suitability. For people who live alone or wish to maintain a high level of independence, a maneuverable chair is likely a priority. Therefore, the user’s strength and independence factor into the wheelchair buying equation.
For a person who needs to lift, fold, and propel their wheelchair, a streamlined design is ideal. A lightweight wheelchair helps promote independence, keep the user safe as they don’t need to strain unnecessarily, and increases the odds that the person will continue to use the chair as needed.
After all, a bulky chair that is too heavy to move won’t provide the necessary mobility for a person who cannot transport it without help. There’s a significant risk of injury if the chair is too heavy or otherwise difficult to maneuver.
Wheelchair Sizing and Special Considerations
In addition to the three priorities of height, weight, and user strength, other factors influence what type of wheelchair is the right fit for your loved one. Other things to consider include:
- Duration and frequency of use
- Unique health challenges
- User age and growth patterns
- Transportation modes and suitability
- Wheelchair options and accessories
- Duration and Frequency of Use
Though some users require a wheelchair for most of their daily activities, others only require part-time mobility assistance. Factoring in how often and for how long your loved one requires their chair can help you make a smart selection.
For example, if your loved one depends on a wheelchair every day, comfort features are a vital factor. In contrast, if the chair is for occasional use, extra padding and adjustments may not be necessary.
Unique Health Challenges
For many people who rely on wheelchairs for mobility, other health challenges also influence their ability to get around. Some individuals with specific conditions may not be able to sit upright for extended periods, for example. Therefore, a wheelchair with a recline feature may be vital for their wellbeing.
Other wheelchair users may need to carry additional equipment, such as a suction machine or oxygen tanks, that can add a significant amount of weight to the device.
Carefully consider your loved one’s health needs to determine what type and size of wheelchair will best accommodate them.
User Age and Growth Patterns
Many children require multiple wheelchairs throughout their childhood, as growth patterns often mean unexpected spurts in height or weight. Adjustability in devices can help delay the need for a new chair, but in many cases, fitting kids can be a challenge.
As kids typically grow quickly until they reach adulthood, sizing an adult for a wheelchair may be simpler than fitting a child. Also, for children with unique health conditions that impact growth, sizing variations may not be a deciding factor.
Consider your loved one’s diagnosis, projected growth patterns, and age to decide whether a highly adjustable or more generally sized wheelchair is suitable.
Transportation Modes and Suitability
The way your loved one gets around is another crucial factor to consider. Potential transportation factors can include ownership of a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, the need for compatibility with public transportation, or a focus on street travel.
While most people who prefer to travel by sidewalk will choose a power wheelchair for their primary mode of transportation, people who need to drive or take public transportation have other concerns.
For example, if your loved one does not have an accessible vehicle, their wheelchair will need to fold compactly to fit in a trunk or back seat. For people who do have accessible cars with ramps, lifts, and wheelchair tie-downs, compatibility can still pose an issue.
Wheelchairs that serve as seats in motor vehicles must meet specific safety requirements, per the WC19 standard. For users who plan to use their chairs as seats, this designation is necessary for safety reasons.
Fit issues within vehicles can also pose problems outside of tie-down compatibility. A taller wheelchair with a taller occupant, for example, may not fit well in an accessible vehicle. The user may need to transfer to a vehicle seat rather than using their wheelchair as a travel seat, even if it meets WC19 requirements.
Wheelchair Options and Accessories
While a basic wheelchair, such as the type hospitals and grocery stores offer, can enhance mobility, wheelchair users benefit from many options and accessories on various device models.
To enhance safety, comfort, and usability determine whether the following accessories are necessary for your loved one:
- A headrest: Many wheelchairs provide back support only
Padded armrests: Some chairs do not offer armrests, while others provide padding and even folding functions to make getting in the chair easier
Additional safety belts: For people with certain conditions, a lap belt may not provide enough support to keep them safely in the chair. However, many wheelchairs have additional straps, including webbing that covers the chest area and secures the user in their seat.
- Adjustable footrests: Whether due to growth or comfort concerns, many wheelchair users require adjustable footrests and other features they can change at home. The ability to angle footrests, for example, can mean better comfort and easier wheelchair use.
- Other accessories: Such as a tray that fits over the user’s lap, straps to keep feet in the proper position, or blocks that fit between a user’s knees to help with proper alignment.
With so many optional accessories, you can make sure your loved one is comfortable, safe, and has the right wheelchair for their needs.
Final Thoughts on Selecting the Right Wheelchair
While your loved one’s comfort is a priority, it’s often challenging to determine what features and considerations equal optimal comfort. Because each person is different, considering factors like their physical features, unique condition, and mobility needs is essential to finding the right wheelchair fit.