Mobility Aids and MS: Manual Wheelchairs

Vicki Health Guide
  • Nothing says disability like a wheelchair, and the wheelchair is one of the greatest fears of MSers. But MSers are not alone in this fear. Last year a Disaboom survey asked: "Would you rather be disabled or dead?" 52% of the respondents said they would rather die. There are more than 54 million Americans -- many of them MSers -- who might disagree. Contrary to a death sentence, a wheelchair can ensure a return to life and living.

    A manual wheelchair is dependent on a caregiver who is willing and able to push the chair or a person with full upper-body function, including arms that can control the chair. Otherwise, a manual wheelchair is not the solution. In this high-tech world, many options besides manual wheelchairs are possible. However, in some situations, such as when the wheeler wants total control, a manual chair is precisely the right one to choose. Selection is another challenge.

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    An institutional chair is used to transport a patient between rooms or between hospitals and should not be used long-term by anyone who needs a wheelchair permanently. It is called "institutional" because of its use in hospitals and nursing homes. Although it is often a rental chair, it is not appropriate as a permanent personal chair.

    The first step in selecting a wheelchair, just like walking aids, is measurement. A standard chair, the one we usually picture, has a cross-brace frame, removable arm rests, swing-away footrests, a mid- to high-level back, and push handles. Lightweight chairs were at one time the choice of athletes, but their maneuverability and sporty style now
    make the lightweight chair preferred by everyone.

    Selecting a chair means putting together various components beginning with the material used to make the frame: stainless steel, aluminum, chrome tubing, or any of several others metals and alloys. Next, the armrests -- the wheelchair fits under a desk more easily without arms, but a person with balance problems needs the armrests. Upholstery can be fabric, synthetic, or even leather. Seating systems depend on the patient's needs and can range from firm to extra soft cushions and gel. Braking can rely on the user's hands or can be parking brakes or wheel locks. The number and type of wheels depends on how the chair is to be used. Footrests can be rigid, extendable, flip up, and they can be removable. Anyone who needs help with wheelchair specifications can enlist a physical therapist who specializes in this type of equipment.

    Because there are many types of people who use manual wheelchairs, there are also many different specialty chairs designed to accommodate varied everyday needs, ability levels, and lifestyles.
    For example, there is a chair that allows controlled movement with only one hand, and another that converts to a standing chair for weight-bearing requirements. Many of these are portable and easily fold-able to store in small spaces such as the backseat of a car.

    The everyday chair may not be the best one for everything. To allow and encourage other activities, there are, once again, specialty chairs. For example, even with a roll-in shower, a manual wheelchair is at risk for rust specifically around the joints and connections.  But even wheelchair users like to be clean, so the shower chair was developed.
    Sitting up straight is not always comfortable for long periods of time especially for someone who is prone to pressure sores.  The tilt wheelchair, capable of converting from a sitting to a reclining position alleviates that problem.

  • Specialty chairs address the needs of wheelers with a travel bug.  There is a lightweight transport chair, an updated institutional wheelchair, that is good for short distances. For longer trips, a specialty lightweight travel wheelchair is handy.  Even these do not facilitate boarding an aircraft, but that is no reason to be concerned.  The airline carrier has an
    aisle chair and people trained to help get wheelers to their assigned seats.

    A wheelchair provides a higher level of mobility than most walking aids so that a person with walking difficulties can participate fully in life, including even aggressively active sports and lively, enthusiastic dancing! These types of activities may not work well with power chairs, so athletes and dancers prefer manual wheelchairs sometimes in addition to their everyday chairs.

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    In the late 40s and early 50s, the Veterans Administration used basketball as a therapy for WWII veteran in wheelchairs. They used standard wheelchairs of the time and were still able to play basketball. Of course, there were other sports besides basketball that would be beneficial — and fun. Now there are specialty wheelchairs as well as other adaptive devices.
    Adaptive sports were born.

    Wheelchair sports is a growing passion for both competitive and personal enjoyment. There are special wheelchairs for playing tennis, martial arts, bicycle racing (a three wheeler with hand controls), and several other popular sports. People who use wheelchairs also take advantage of other adaptive devices for sports such as snowboarding and surfing. There are also specialty wheelchairs for the pool and beach. The Paralympics provide a showcase for many world-class athletes who depend on wheelchairs. The games are quite inspiring for athletic wannabes or people who want to continue with athletics after starting to use a wheelchair for daily mobility.

    if you are not into sports, what about dancing? There are wheelchair dance contests all over the world. For many of the contests, one of the dance partners must be in a wheelchair and the other one can be upright. It's not just contests — a friend went dancing at a local club and called to tell me there was a man in a wheelchair dancing with many of the ladies, including her. I have also seen one woman who performs amazing interpretive dance on stage in a wheelchair.

    The plain and simple manual wheelchair is plain and simple no more.
    New wheelchair improvements are introduced all the time to make life easier. Whether the chair is used only part time, or it is needed full time, life has changed, but it definitely is not over.

    There are challenges, but these can be fun or even exhilarating. With so many people playing sports and dancing, it seems as if nothing is out of reach for the wheelchair user. A wheelchair should not represent disability as much as continued mobility, participation, and living.

    Next I will talk about scooters or power operated vehicles (POVs).

    Notes and Links:
    How to buy a wheelchair

  • I Would Rather Be Dead — survey

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    Wheelchair Fact Sheet

    Wheelchair athletics 

    Wheelchair Athletics — Increasingly Popular
    Celebration of Wheels in Sports
    Interpretive Dance
    Wheelchair Dance Competition video
    Wheelchair Dance

Published On: October 14, 2009