Technology in wheelchair design and advances in new-age materials have revolutionised the industry. LIANA SHAW looks into the advantages of a lightweight chair and what to consider when making a purchasing decision
It is commonly accepted that a lightweight chair is easier to propel, manoeuvre transport and store than a standard wheelchair. This is why lightweight models are sometimes referred to as transport chairs. They feature four wheels, or two large wheels in the rear and two small wheels in the front.
Moreover, some lightweight mobility chairs have adjustable frames that allow the angle of the seat to be pushed back, thereby offering a range of seating positions.
It would be a mistake to assume lightweight chairs are not strong. According to Vivian Sierra, CEO of Chairman Industries, new-age materials such as carbon fibre, chrome moly and titanium provide modern wheelchairs with incredible structural rigidity and longevity, despite their light weight. Best of all, most of these wheelchairs come with a three-to-five-year warranty.
Typically, a lightweight chair weighs under 10 kg, although this is a broad definition when one considers that a powerchair would be under 40 kg and a lightweight active chair could be under five kilograms.
“There are other considerations, such as, does one opt for a rigid chair or a folding one?” Sierra says. “The absence of a folding mechanism in a rigid frame renders this type of chair much lighter than its folding counterparts, resulting in easier loading for independent transfers. Loading into a vehicle can take longer with a rigid frame as the wheels need to be removed and the backrest folded down for the chair to fit in. These types of chairs may also be harder to fit into smaller boots owing to the shape of the lower frame. In addition, rigid frames may become slightly cumbersome when using public transport.
“Notwithstanding, a rigid frame design means a chair is more stringent structurally and less prone to the frame breaking or components failing. Plus, with a rigid frame you are able to dial in a patient’s seating setup more easily, without fear of the setup changing when the chair is folded or shifting during use as it might in a folding frame.
“In contrast, open-frame chairs are easier to load into a vehicle alone, and are better for use on public transport as they are easier to load over the person and can be carried on their lap. And of course, in the car, such a chair can easily be packed on a car seat as it follows the shape of the seat. On the downside, they are not as strong as a closed-frame rigid chair because the absence of a stabilising bar results in more flexing of the frame, which could lead to premature structural failure. This is especially the case with heavier users or when using attachments on the front of the chair as a FreeWheel,” he says.
Rigid chairs are ideal for active users who want the most options for the least amount of weight, adds Candice Brunsden, sales manager CE Mobility. “With fewer moving parts, the majority of energy one exerts in pushing is translated into forward motion. This results in a highly responsive and an energy-efficient ride. A common myth is that this chair will not fit into your car. In fact, most rigids are more compact than a folding wheelchair when disassembled!
“However, I do agree that folding wheelchairs are a great option if you need a compact chair for storage or when you are using public transport. Bear in mind that some users just prefer a traditional folding chair, which can still be highly adjustable and ultra-lightweight, and offers a broad range of positioning options,” says Brunsden.
“After budget, the most important factor is choosing the chair that fits your lifestyle,” advises Sierra. “There is not much point in paying R100 000 for an ultra-lightweight chair if you spend a lot of time in the bush, subjecting the chair to heavy use over rough terrain. Rather spend less and choose something a little heavier and more durable. You would need to weigh up lifestyle factors such as: how many times do you transfer in and out of a vehicle during the day; in what environment will the chair be most of the time; will the chair provide decent postural support; and how long is the chair likely to last?”
A final word from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation: “In some ways a wheelchair is like a bicycle: there are many designs and styles to choose from, including imports, lightweights, racing models and the like. Selecting the right chair, especially for a first-time wheelchair user, can be confusing, so it’s always a good idea to work with an occupational therapist who has experience with various kinds of wheelchairs.” Great advice indeed!