Some Useful Advice before Buying an Electric Wheelchair
I have known a lot of disabled people who pooh-pooh the use of electric wheelchairs because they look upon it as some kind of weakness to use an electric wheelchair rather than push yourself. I've been disabled for a long time now, it will be 30 years in 2016. So basically I have done it and got the T-shirt. I'm in my late 40s, I don't want life to be a challenge, I don't want to make things difficult for myself, I want to get on with my life, enjoy the things I do and make the best of my disabled life.
The first electric wheelchair I had was called a Myra. It was a superb outdoor wheelchair, it would go anywhere you wanted it to. However, it was totally inappropriate for use indoors. For a start, it had massive front wheels that didn't do the carpet much good. It also had rear wheel steering which meant you had to turn it rather like turning a car. Therefore I only ever used to sit in it when going out. The next chair I had was called the Cheetah and was an indoor/outdoor wheelchair. It was much more suited to my needs, if I wanted to I could stay in it all day indoors and could manoeuvre around the house with no problems whatsoever because it used rear wheel drive and steering which meant you could basically spin it on the spot. The Myra seating was very much like the old NHS wheelchairs, a short back with really no support whatsoever. The Cheetah, on the other hand, used a Recaro rally seat, the same as you would find in a car. Although much better as it gave you a lot of support. It still wasn't perfect because the manufacturers had not taken into account that most people who use wheelchairs need a specialised cushion to sit on. Therefore we had to literally cut a section of the seat belt in order to take my Roho cushion.
In 2000 I decided I needed another power wheelchair, the Cheetah was getting old and starting to malfunction. I chose a wheelchair called a Permobil, a Swedish made wheelchair that is very much at the cutting edge of technology. Permobil wheelchairs do not come cheap, especially when you add on all the extras that are available for these wheelchairs. I have recently replaced my wheelchair once again, this time I have gone for another Permobil after all my old Permobil Chairman gave me nearly 12 years of service without any major problems. It's amazing how technology has come on, my new Permobil is basically the Rolls-Royce of wheelchairs, but you have to bear in mind that I use my wheelchair all day, I don't sit in a manual wheelchair at all, so having a top of the range wheelchair is very important. I now have a Permobil Corpus 500 which is all singing and dancing, believe me, this wheelchair is fantastic. I am able to electrically recline my seat to a 50° angle, this means that not only does it give you excellent pressure relief, but it also enables you to have a little sleep during the day if you wish. The tilt and recline are also very helpful when travelling down very steep slopes, it's not a nice pitching forward when going down steep inclines. I can also electrically operate my backrest, leg rests and also raise my whole seat to eye level with most people, well people who are no taller than about 5'9", or maybe a little higher, I haven't measured it.
My wheelchair is the top of the range when it comes to powered wheelchairs, because of my condition and daily living I have opted for a wheelchair that enables me to do things in comfort. If I want to have a little snooze during the day then I just recline the seat and have 40 winks. If I'm at the pub and want to join in the conversation with other people then rather than having to look up at everyone, I can simply raise the seat on my wheelchair and I'm up there with everyone joining the conversation. Obviously, all this comes at a cost and not everyone is going to be able to afford one of these wheelchairs. Having said this, these functions are available on other powered wheelchairs and cost a fraction of the price of the Permobil. The Invacare Storm electric wheelchair, for instance, can be purchased with all the functions of the Permobil, but at a fraction of the price.
One of my hobbies is fishing which means travelling over rough ground occasionally, this may come in the form of grass gravel or mud. If you're planning an doing the same then choose a wheelchair with suitable wheels. It's no good going for a wheelchair with very small front wheels, or very thin back tyres, these type of wheelchairs will probably not handle rough ground very well and you certainly don't want to be tipping out of your wheelchair because your small front wheel has got caught in a small hole.
If you suffer from stability problems when sitting in a wheelchair then choosing the right upholstery can make all the difference between sitting comfortably and flopping from side to side. Sitting in a wheelchair seat that is contoured will give you stability and therefore make you feel much safer when you are travelling outside going over bumps in the road and pavement. If you are going to drive while sitting in your wheelchair them stability is important, you don't want to be falling from side to side when you are manoeuvring a roundabout for instance, although you would probably be wise to wear a chest strap to give you that extra stability, or have a specially designed seatbelt in your vehicle that doubles up as a restraints and seatbelt. You may find that your legs need support as well, my legs will often splay apart if I haven't got thigh support. The Permobil Corpus 500 has excellent support for your legs, the thigh support can be critically positioned so that your legs are supported and not flopping all over the place. A new wheelchair is always going to feel rather strange really set in it for the first time, this is quite normal so don't panic when you first set in your new wheelchair, just give it a little bit of time and I can almost guarantee that in no time at all your new wheelchair will feel like you've been sitting in it forever.
If your electric wheelchair is going to be your primary chair on a daily basis then you may want to consider how manoeuvrable it is indoors. Bear in mind that rear wheel drive wheelchairs are much less manoeuvrable than front and mid drive wheelchairs. My Permobil users front wheel drive which makes it very easy to manoeuvre into tight spaces. Permobil also manufacture a wheelchair that has the main wheels located almost directly under the sitting position, these wheelchairs are even more manoeuvrable than the front wheel drive chairs. Some people complain that front wheel drive wheelchairs fishtail when you are driving at speed, to a certain extent this is true but this normally only happens when you are getting used to the wheelchair, once you become accustomed to it this won't happen.
There are literally hundreds of electrically powered wheelchairs available nowadays. Technology has come along in leaps and bounds and you don't necessarily have to go to the expense I did to purchase something like a Permobil. The Invacare Storm is an extremely good wheelchair that comes in various models, the Storm 4 is a very powerful wheelchair with a top speed of about 6 miles an hour, it will take you just about anywhere you want to go without you having to worry about batteries running down, and at a third of the price of the Permobil is more affordable.
Wheelchair Vehicle Restraint
If you are intending on driving from your electric wheelchair then make sure that you ask about the relevant restraints systems that will fit your particular type of wheelchair. I can't emphasise how important it is to use the proper wheelchair restraint when driving. I'm sure that I don't need to tell you this but if you were to have an accident and your wheelchair was not secured properly then you would be in serious trouble, your wheelchair would literally get thrown around the car with you still in it, I dread to think what the outcome would be if you were travelling at speed, it's too frightening to think about. And please always use a headrest on your wheelchair when driving, again, if you are to have an accident you could cause yourself a serious neck injury you didn't have a headrest. Even if you have got a headrest already, make sure that it is positioned properly, a headrest that is not in the right position will be virtually useless and will give you no protection in an accident.
Wheelchair Voucher Scheme
You may be eligible for a free wheelchair If you are registered disabled. There are normally two options when entering into the wheelchair voucher scheme, you can either take your pick of the wheelchair that your authority has on its list for the voucher scheme, or you can obtain a voucher which will then enable you to go out and buy a wheelchair of your choice. The amount of money that the voucher is worth can differ greatly depending on where you live in the country. At the time of writing, I believe the vouchers worth about £6000 in Devon. You can take the £6000 and add your own money if the wheelchair you want exceeds the £6000, it's up to you if you go it alone, but remember if you buy the wheelchair yourself that you are responsible for maintenance. If the wheelchair belongs to the authority then they maintain it for you. Check out wheelchair voucher scheme for more information on obtaining a wheelchair