Is light right?

Advances in technology (thank the mountain bikers) mean wheelchairs are getting lighter. We weigh up the pros and cons.

The government-supplied standard wheelchairs are specified as “not more than 23 kg”. Light wheelchairs used to weigh between 15 and 20 kg but now, some new-generation “ultralite” and sports wheelchairs weigh as little as
9 kg with wheels.

Why so light? First, the frames are made of high strength-low weight materials such as aluminium, titanium or carbon fibre. The frames are light, durable and don’t rust. Over the “lifetime” of a wheelchair they can last 13.2 times longer than standard manual wheelchairs. Secondly, they are usually physically smaller, have lower backs, and may not have traditional foot or arm rests. Less weight means less “rolling resistance”, low backrests let you hold the rims further back, giving a greater push arc, so you move forward faster and further. This means fewer “pushes” to get to places. They have great manoeuvrability around the house or in the shops. Rigid frames are more common, but with some you can fold the backrest onto the seat rather than cross-folding. Just remember that the more you customise the wheelchair, the more it weighs.

One option is a light power chair. “The Foldawheel PW-999UL is the lightest power wheelchair in the world” at
20.5 kg, approximately R71 213 direct from wheelchair88.com. (Power chairs are usually 26 to 45 kg.)

Rigid, customised and sports wheelchairs are more expensive, so you need to think carefully about this investment and “try before you buy”.

A light version suits people with active lives and it is often recommended for those with repetitive strain injuries (carpal tunnel syndrome or rotator cuff injury). The lighter the chair, the easier it is for people with poor upper-limb muscle strength and degenerative neurological conditions to use it.

Lighter is not always better, however. Vivian Sierra of Chairman Industries warns that light chairs can easily tip, turn to the side when rolling downhill or have “caster flutter” (like a shopping trolley with a bad wheel). The absence of full armrests means you are more likely to catch your clothing in the wheels, and there is no place to stash items at your side. Although the frames are strong, they also have nuts, bolts and screws, which will need to be replaced.

Consider how well the chair suits you and your lifestyle. They are highly adjustable, so make sure that you have a fitting first and only buy “off the shelf” or second-hand if you know your seating requirements.

So what do the users say?
SpinLife lists a number of reviews. Light wheelchairs are recommended by 90 to 100 percent of reviewers. Popular light wheelchairs with positive reviews are: Quickies (Breezy Elegance Gold, EC 3000 and Custom LXI), TiLIte, and Invacare.

Local wheelchair user and retailer Barry Edy recommends titanium frames for their strength and lightness.

The Apparelyzed Spinal Cord Injury and Cauda Equina Syndrome Support Forum Blog users say:

WaveWolf: When I tried the Panthera X at disability expo, I wept because it was the first time I felt no hindrance to my mobility. I didn’t want to get out of the chair, and it wasn’t even perfectly fitted or adjusted to me. Just felt amazing…

Jimmay: I think if you are a fairly lightweight individual that engages in moderate to light activity, a C(arbon) F(ibre) chair could be just the ticket for you; if you are a larger person that participates actively in vigorous activities that some may deem hard on your WC (Wheelchair), it could be wise to save your money and stick with a higher strength material. Unless you don’t have the strength and/or capacity to compensate for a couple extra pounds….

anomiepete: I had the Quickie GPV(?) Titanium until 2004 and it never missed a beat. But then came what I consider to be the Concord of chairs – the Quickie TI. I had this until 2014 and its frame weighed = 4.65KG or 10.25lbs and even with heavy daily use it never caused any problems (although I always had to buy a new back rest each year). When I came to get a new chair in 2012 as I wanted a shorter frame with a greater 90 front angle I could not find any chair maker to meet my wish list of a short chair as light as the old Quickie.

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