Brief history of the wheelchair

With International Wheelchair Day commemorated on March 1, we thought it would be great to look at the history of this essential mobility device, which provides independence to so many. The modern wheelchair as we know it today was only developed very late – in the 1930s!

Herbert Everest, a person with a disability who broke his back during a mining accident, and Harry Jennings – two mechanical engineers, invented the first lightweight, steel, folding, portable wheelchair in 1933. Their design was mass produced, making it the first wheelchair to be mass-marketed. Their X-brace design is still commonly used.

However, the first-ever records of wheeled furniture were found on a stone slate in China and a Greek vase – both dating between the fifth and sixth century. Three centuries later, the first record of wheeled seats used to transport people with disabilities were documented in China. These wheelbarrow-like devices were used to carry people and heavy objects.

Only another several hundred years later would there be specific chairs made to carry people. Europe eventually developed a similar design, but only around 1595. Stephan Farffler, a 22-year-old paraplegic watchmaker, built the first self-propelling chair in 1655.

Today, wheelchairs are much easier to navigate, provide more independence and are customised for the user. In addition, there are more option regarding manual, powered, folding, rigid, activity, colours and material.

While there are always ways to improve these mobility devices, we’ve come some ways with much of the thanks going to wheelchair users themselves!

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