Welcome to

Beneficial Designs

We are located in Minden, Nevada just east of the Sierras. We believe all individuals should have access to the physical, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of life. Please earn more about us!

Services

We have many different services available to meet your needs. Beneficial Designs provides highly efficient assessment and transition plan services to identify hazards and access issues in the sidewalk and outdoor recreation environments.

Wheelchair Testing

We can insure that your manual and powered wheelchair products will be tested to meet the requirements necessary for Pricing, Data Analysis and Coding (PDAC), 510k submission to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and/or United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) submission.

Sidewalk Assessment

Sidewalk assessment services are available; our sidewalk assessors are assessing college campuses and cities all across the country using the Public Rights-of-Way Assessment Process—PROWAP—electronics and software. Call today to see how our services can help you identify tripping and ADA liabilities.

Outdoor Recreation Assessment Equipment

Our trail assessment products and software have been developed to enable you to locate liabilities and access issues. We are constantly developing the right tools to efficiently assess all outdoor environments for the safety and enjoyment of people of all abilities.

Surface Measurement Tools

The Rotational Penetrometer is a precision instrumented surface indenter for measuring the firmness and stability of ground and floor surfaces, such as trails, playgrounds, and carpets. The Rotational Penetrometer is the only device of its kind—a reliable, objective, portable instrument for testing surface firmness and stability.

Mapping and Signage

The Architectural Barriers Act—ABA—requires that trail signage contain Trail Access Information, which is created from data collected during trail assessments using the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP) and the High Efficiency Trail Assessment Process (HETAP). All trail users find grade, cross slope, tread width, surface, and obstruction information useful for the enjoyment of trails.

Trail Training

Onsite training is available to become a certified Trail Assessment Coordinator using the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP) and to become proficient in the use of the High Efficiency Trail Assessment Process (HETAP) hardware and software.

Pax Press Publications

Published books include The Manual Wheelchair Training Guide, The Powered Wheelchair Training Guide, and A Guide to Wheelchair Selection. These guides provide new and experienced users and rehabilitation professionals with valuable reference materials.

Research and Development

We are working on new technologies that will make your access issues disappear. We are currently developing an application for mobile devices that will enable the efficient assessment of all outdoor recreation environments, including picnic and camping areas, outdoor recreation trails, and access routes.

Expert Witness Services

Peter Axelson can assist as an expert witness for powered and manual mobility devices. He has knowledge and experience related to the training of mobility device users and the design, manufacturing, prescription, fitting, and usage of mobility devices. He also has the expertise to assess the environment in which the accident may have occurred.

Sidewalk Assessment

More than 400 miles of sidewalk and a dozen college campuses in 5 states have been  assessed. Allow us to help your city with all your assessment needs.

Expert Witness Services

If you or somone you know needs an expert witness for forensic testing of mobility devices, contact us today!

Press Releases

Our team has worked hard on releasing the newest versions of the trail assessment equipment and software as well as the rotational penetrometer an instrumented surface indentor. 

Wheelchair Testing

We are always performing wheelchair testing requested by manufacturers. Check out what options you have when choosing Beneficial Designs.

Manual Wheelchair Training Guide

Appendix B

Accessories

The availability of accessories for wheelchair users has expanded tremendously over the past few years. You could never need or use all the accessories available on the market- if you did, your chair would be bristling with enough gadgets and gizmos to rival a one-man novelty band. The accessories you choose will reflect your personal abilities, activities, skill level, and plain old personal preference. An accessory you use all the time might be merely a hindrance to another person. You will grow out of some accessories you found indispensable when you first started using a wheelchair. You may grow into other accessories as you gain experience with your chair. Below is a list of accessories, including a description, other common terms for the accessory, and the positives and negatives of using it.

airplane wheels – When quick release rear tires are removed, the wheelchair can roll on these wheels down an airplane aisle (these are slightly larger wheels than the little rollers on the anti-tippers).

  1. allows you to pull yourself through a narrow door or down an airplane aisle

arm support panels – These plastic or metal guards attach to the arm supports, between the wheel and the rider.

  1. keeps tire dirt on the outside of arm supports and away from your clothes
  2. may reduce the effective width of your wheelchair seat; be sure to check the pressure on both sides of your hip bones

backpack – Bag designed to be worn on the back, it can also be attached to the back of a wheelchair by hooking the straps over the push handles or frame. Backpacks specifically designed for wheelchairs are also available.

  1. can carry an assortment of supplies
  2. additional weight on the back of the chair can increase likelihood of tipping over backward (if you plan to use a backpack often, practice skills with it on your chair)

bicycle lights – Lights designed to clip onto bicycles can increase your visibility to motorists. A white halogen lamp can act as a headlight. Blinking red lights can be clipped to the rear of your wheelchair to improve your visibility.

  1. helps you view upcoming terrain; increases your visibility to motorists when traveling in the street; removable
  2. require batteries; may not be as easy to mount on a wheelchair as to a bike

bike trailer – A wheeled cart that can be attached to the back of the wheelchair for added storage.

  1. adds storage space if you need to transport a lot of things
  2. limits maneuverability; requires more energy to propel wheelchair

caster wheel pins (caster wheel locks) – These pins lock the caster wheel in the forward or rearward trailing position.

  1. stabilizes wheelchair when doing transfers; helpful when in rehab or to those new to using a wheelchair
  2. usually unnecessary for more experienced wheelchair users

cellular phone

  1. can be used to contact help in an emergency
  2. must keep batteries charged; adds weight; additional expense to maintain; could create a distraction while maneuvering

chair guards (frame guards) – Chair guards are plastic or leather covers that fit over your wheelchair when you are not using it.

  1. protects paint from damage caused by impact
  2. You may need help to put it in place Unless you travel with it, it may not be where you need it

chest strap – A strap attached to the back of the wheelchair that crosses under your arms and over your chest. It can help prevent you from falling forward. Always use a lap belt if you are using a chest belt.

  1. can prevent injury that might occur when falling forward out of wheelchair during sudden stops; provides additional trunk stability
  2. locks you into your wheelchair, which may cause an injury if wheelchair falls over; can restrict mobility of trunk and/or buttocks

clothing guards (mud guards) – Plastic or nylon guards that stay between your wheels and clothes to keep you clean.

  1. keeps clothing from getting soiled by dirt kicked up from tires
  2. some people find clothing guards unsightly; may narrow the width of the seat

duct tape – Wide plastic tape embedded with fiber webbing for strength

  1. very strong and sticky; can be used for temporary repairs while on the road
  2. should not be used in place of proper wheelchair parts (e.g., not equivalent to a bolt); may leave a sticky residue after removal

running brakes – Used to slow a moving wheelchair. Rare, but available on some European-made wheelchairs, also as an aftermarket product, you can add to your wheels if needed.

  1. may be helpful when moving on downward slopes
  2. adds weight to the wheelchair; may interfere with usual propulsion and rear wheel removal

electrical tape – Thin, stretchy plastic tape that is used to bind electrical wires. Comes in many colors.

  1. can be used for on the road repairs until you can get home and fix the problem properly
  2. not as sticky or strong as duct tape

flags – A tall, flexible rod with a triangular flag (usually vinyl or plastic); usually comes in a fluorescent color. Mounts to the back of your wheelchair to improve your visibility.

  1. helps prevent accidents by making you more visible to motorists
  2. many dislike the way the flag looks, can get caught on low-hanging obstacles

flashlight - Useful when traveling along dark streets and to improve your visibility to others. For easy access, use a Velcro™ strap to attach it to the frame of your wheelchair.

  1. can be used to look for lost objects and to help perform emergency repairs
  2. people with limited hand function may have difficulty operating

fold-down briefcase rest (luggage carrier) – Small lever that attaches to each foot support side rails. When raised, can hold a briefcase or travel bag at your feet, where you can access it easily. Folds down and out of the way when not in use.

  1. keeps items conveniently located within easy reach; folds up when not in use
  2. heavy bag may tip wheelchair in the forward direction

foot straps – Straps that attach to the foot supports and loop over the top of each foot to keep them from sliding forward off the foot supports.

  1. prevent feet from falling forward off foot supports; limit the chance of injury or accident caused by feet hitting the ground in front of the foot supports; will prevent legs from falling onto face in a backward fall
  2. need to be released for transfers; if you fall from your wheelchair, your feet will stay attached to the foot supports and this can be dangerous

gloves – Gloves with grips such as plastic strips or dots on the palms.

  1. keep your hands clean; helps prevent blisters; helps prevent hands from sliding on the handrims; can protect hands from friction burns when braking down a steep grade
  2. can be hot to wear; wear out quickly

hand bike – bicycle that can be pedaled with the hands and arms.

handiwipes (wet naps, 
baby-wipes)
 – Wet cloths used for cleaning hands and face. Available in plastic dispensers or in individual packets.

  1. can clean your hands when a sink is not nearby or accessible
  2. occupy limited carrying space

head rests – Mounts to the back of the wheelchair and used to support the head, as in car seats.

  1. reduce chance of whiplash if head is snapped back in an auto accident
  2. may limit sight when looking behind

hill climbers (grade aids) – Hill climbers attach to the wheelchair on or near the parking brake. When engaged, they allow the wheelchair to roll forward, but prevent it from rolling backward.

  1. reduces the likelihood of rolling backward on an incline
  2. may interfere with usual wheelchair propulsion

key clasps – Small clasps with key rings attached that can hook keys to the frame of your wheelchair.

  1. easy access to keys; keeps keys visible to limit theft from a backpack
  2. the clasp may be hard to open for persons with limited mobility in their hands

lap belt – A belt worn across the lap to prevent forward falls out of the wheelchair. A lap belt should always be used with a chest support. Belt clasps come in many different styles.

  1. can prevent injury that might occur when falling forward out of wheelchair, due to a sudden stop; provides stability to allow independent function
  2. locks you into your wheelchair, which may cause an injury if wheelchair tips completely forward; can restrict mobility of trunk and/or buttocks

leg straps – Straps that hold the legs to the wheelchair frame just above the foot supports.

  1. prevent feet from falling off foot supports, limiting chance of injury caused by feet getting stuck behind foot supports; useful on rough terrain; will prevent legs from flopping onto the face in a backward fall
  2. may interfere with swing-away foot supports

mirrors - Mirrors mounted onto the frame of your wheelchair can be used similarly to mirrors on a car.

  1. helps you see what’s behind you
  2. will not help you see motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists in your blind spot (the area just to the side and behind you that is not reflected in the mirror)

noise maker – A horn or bell attached to your wheelchair can be used to signal motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Can be purchased at bicycle shops.

  1. notifies motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists of your presence to reduce the possibility of collision
  2. some do not like the way horns look or sound; may be difficult to reach and activate

patch kit – A patch kit will help fix flat tires. You will still need a pump to fill the patched tire with air.

  1. permits you to repair tire punctures on the road
  2. adds weight to your supplies

pump – Can be used to inflate tires that need air.

  1. helps you avoid being stranded
  2. adds weight

reflective tape – Brightly colored plastic or vinyl tape that reflects light aimed at it; can be attached to your wheelchair and/or clothing.

  1. makes you more visible to motorists
  2. may appear unsightly to some wheelchair users

reflectors – Plastic disks or rectangles that reflect light aimed at them; can be attached to the spokes, frame, or back of a wheelchair to improve your visibility to motorists. Recommended if wheeling in the roadway where vehicular traffic is anticipated.

seat pouch – Cloth pouches specifically designed to be attached under wheelchair seats. A fanny pack (nylon or cloth pouches worn around the waist) can be modified to serve as a seat pouch.

  1. provides additional storage space; under-seat position provides better security than a backpack
  2. people with little or no upper-body strength may have difficulty reaching under-seat pouches

shoulder harness – Strap that fits over your shoulders and hooks around the back of a wheelchair to help keep you upright and bolster your forward stability.

  1. can prevent injury that might occur when falling forward out of wheelchair due to sudden stops
  2. locks you into your wheelchair which may cause an injury if it tips completely forward; may limit reach even more than a chest strap

spoke guards – Plastic disks that fit over your outer spokes; function as a hubcap for the rear wheels.

  1. protects spokes from being damaged, protects fingers from getting caught in spokes, useful in sporting events where wheelchairs tend to collide
  2. add weight; can degrade quickly

supports (postural support devices, trunk supports) – Padding that can be added to a wheelchair seat and/or back to improve the seating position of the rider. May include chest straps, lap belts, side-to-side supports, and hip guides.

  1. provides stability to allow independent function
  2. may restrict mobility of trunk and/or buttocks; may interfere with transfers

Swiss Army Knife (multi-purpose tool) – Can function as an all-in-one tool kit; depending on the model, it can include screwdrivers, scissors, knife blades, files, pliers, and tweezers.

  1. handy while out and about, saves time spent looking for tools
  2. requires good hand function to operate

tray (lap tray) – A flat removable surface (usually plastic) that mounts to the frame and extends over your lap. It can be used as a surface for eating, playing games, reading, writing, etc.

  1. can provide a good substitute for tables when available tables and counters are too low to wheel under
  2. adds weight; may feel and look awkward; limits ability to access other surfaces

web cradle – A square piece of mesh that attaches below the seat and is used for storage.

  1. additional storage for books, clothes, etc.
  2. stored items may get dirty

Section 5.2

Setting Limits and Offering Help

It can be hard to admit you have reached your limits. However, you should safeguard your own health and well-being. You need to know your limits and how to say “no” when you have reached them.

How to Say “No”

It is important to understand that you do not have to assist a wheelchair user if it will make you uncomfortable. This could result in injury to the wheelchair user or yourself. For example, pushing a wheelchair up a curb with an injured back could be painful and may cause further injury. Do not be afraid to say “No.” The following are several ways to decline help:

  • Politely decline by saying, “I don’t feel comfortable or safe assisting you in that way.” Explaining why you declined is often appreciated. However, if your reasons are personal, you have no obligation to explain yourself.
  • Offer to find someone who can help. “I’m not able to assist you up this curb because I have a shoulder injury. Would you like me to find someone else?”
  • Offer an alternative skill. “I’m not comfortable lifting your caster wheels onto the curb because I don’t think I can lift the weight of your wheelchair. Can we try climbing it backward, and I’ll pull from the push handles?”
  • Offer an alternative route. “I’m concerned about trying to go down this steep hill. I don’t think it’s safe. The hill isn’t as steep a little farther down the road.”

Sometimes the wheelchair user will be surprised or become angry at your refusal to help even if you explained it. That’s OK, you still need to protect yourself from injury.

Offering Assistance

Sometimes, watching a person who looks like he or she is struggling to complete a task is difficult. Keep in mind that the person may not want assistance; it may be important for him or her to accomplish the activity independently. It might be easier for the wheelchair user to do the activity alone than to explain to others how they can help. The wheelchair user might have had bad experiences in the past when people tried to help. The wheelchair user might even be out exercising. It may be difficult to watch, but you do not necessarily need to help the person. Don’t be offended if the wheelchair user refuses your offer to help.

Only assist a wheelchair user when you are asked and/or have been given permission. If you think a wheelchair user might need assistance, offer. The wheelchair user may be in a position that looks precarious, but have the situation under control. Unexpected assistance might throw him or her off balance.

  • Ask if the wheelchair user wants help. Avoid assertive statements such as, “Let me do this for you,” which make it difficult for the wheelchair user to decline your help.
  • Try wording your offer more casually. “Could you use a hand?” or “Can I help you out?”

If your offer to assist has been accepted, the wheelchair user is in charge. Ask the rider how you can help and follow his or her instructions. Ask the rider to talk you through the sequence before trying it, then work together to do it correctly.

  • Do not push, lift, or pull unless the wheelchair user asks. Often you will be working together (e.g., to climb a curb, you may be pushing on the push handles as the wheelchair user pushes).
  • Speak up if you feel in danger of injuring yourself by following the rider’s instructions.
  • Push or pull an occupied wheelchair only when the rider is actually pushing or pulling on the handrims. If you move the wheelchair when the rider is not expecting it or not holding on, you could cause the rider to fall out of the wheelchair.

Section 2.5

Ramps

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines

(ADAAG), a standard ramp should have a grade no steeper than 1:12. This means that for every one inch of rise (change in height), there should be 12 inches of run (change in length). This is sometimes referred to as an 8% grade or slope. Using this formula, a ramp going to a platform with two 8-inch steps (creates a total of 16 inches of rise) should be 16 feet long. A standard ramp is gradual enough for many people to climb safely, but each individual’s limits are different. Some people may not be able to manage a ramp this steep, while others can handle much steeper ramps. With experimentation, you will learn how steep a ramp you can negotiate alone. Always use a spotter when practicing on ramps and when climbing a steep ramp for the first time. You can practice on public ramps and you may also find using a ramp with a railing easier. Climb increasingly steeper ramps until you find one that causes your front caster wheels to lift off the ground. Experience the loss of stability, and visually remember the steepness of the slope that caused this to happen. Obtain assistance before climbing slopes this steep or steeper in the future.

Before learning the skills in this section, you should be able to propel a wheelchair forward and backward, and maintain a seated position when your balance is challenged. You will be able to perform more techniques and negotiate steeper slopes if you can pop a wheelie and move forward and backward in the wheelie position.

Going Up a Ramp

Put your anti-tip devices down in a functional position before ascending a ramp, because if the ramp is steep, your wheelchair may tip over backward. Sometimes anti-tip devices catch at the beginning of a ramp. If you must disengage the anti-tip devices, move slowly, lean forward, use an assistant, and be extra careful.

A backpack or other gear on the back of your wheelchair changes your center of gravity and will cause you to tip backward more easily. When you have a backpack on your wheelchair you will find that your chair may be less balanced going up ramps.

When you roll up a ramp, you have to re-grip the wheels quickly in between pushes or your wheelchair will roll backwards in between pushes. Devices called hill-climbers can be attached to prevent your wheelchair from rolling backwards between pushes as you travel up grades, hills or ramps. These are especially helpful if you are not strong enough to maintain your momentum between pushes going up the ramps you normally encounter.

Going up forward

Basic technique

  • Propel forward onto the ramp.
  • Lean forward to counteract the tendency of your wheelchair to tip backward.
  • Some people prefer propelling up the ramp with long strokes originating far back on the handrims. Other people can obtain more momentum and power with short, quick propulsion strokes. Experiment with both to see which technique works best for you.
  • If you start slowing down, try alternating hands on the handrims. Push first on one side and then on the other. This way one of your hands is always on your wheel preventing it from rolling backwards. This technique may not work on steeper ramps. (See Section 1.8 for more information about this propulsion technique.)
  • Turn your wheelchair sideways to the ramp slope and lean into the hill if you need to rest.

Using momentum

  • Gather as much speed as you can before you reach the base of the ramp so your momentum can help propel you up the ramp.
  • Propel quickly up the ramp until you start running out of strength.
  • Turn the chair sideways to the ramp slope and lean into the hill to rest.

Using handrails

  • If there is at least one handrail on the ramp, you can pull yourself up by pushing on one handrim and pulling on a handrail with the other hand.
  • If there are two handrails on the ramp and you can reach them both, you can use them to pull yourself up the ramp.

How a spotter can help

  • Walk behind the wheelchair user and place your hands close to the push handles or back support posts with the pull straps. Try not to influence the movement of the wheelchair.
  • Prevent the wheelchair from tipping over backward.

Going up backward

Some people, especially those who propel their wheelchairs with their feet, find it easier to travel up ramps backward. Before going up, make sure the ramp is wide enough for your wheelchair, and check for hazards such as uneven surfaces, obstacles, unprotected drop-offs, and oncoming traffic.

  • Just before the base of the ramp, turn your wheelchair around so your rear wheels are next to the base of the ramp.
  • Propel your wheelchair backward by pulling back on the handrims.
  • Lean backward into the hill.
  • If you also propel with your feet, walk them up the hill to push your wheelchair.
  • At the top, check behind you for oncoming traffic and obstacles before turning around and proceeding forward.

Section 4.5

Traveling

Have you ever looked forward to a fabulous meal at a great restaurant, dressed in your best clothes, and fought your way onto the bus, or endured a heart-stopping cab ride, only to find that your destination is located up a flight of stairs? Sometimes it is not a lack of access but a lack of information that will make your journey difficult. Taking a few minutes to call ahead can solve problems and save lots of time. Be specific when asking questions; many people's idea of “accessible” may be very different from yours. Do not be surprised if you are told a restaurant is accessible even if it occupies the upper floor of a building without an elevator. If a destination you have been told is accessible turns out to be inaccessible, ask to speak with the manager. Tell the manager that “accessible” means an environment in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), and that your inability to use the facility probably indicates the establishment needs to improve its access measures. (Appendix A contains more information about the ADA).

Travel Planning Tips

Part of the appeal of going to new places is the fun of exploring the unknown. Though you may think advance reconnaissance is cheating and dull, it is usually worthwhile to obtain basic access information about the site to avoid disappointments. You don’t want to arrive at a wedding, dressed in nice clothing, only to find you must cross a muddy path to get to the reception. Nor would it be amusing to arrive at a hotel and discover the “accessible guest room” has a shower stall sized to accommodate slender children but not you and your shower chair. Make a practice of calling ahead and talking to friends or acquaintances who have been there before.

Consider asking the following questions:

  • What kinds of obstacles will you face en route to your destination?
  • Is there an elevator or stairs?
  • Do the curbs have ramps?
  • Will someone be there to help you across the lawn that’s been transformed into a snow field?
  • Is the route all indoors, or is a portion outdoors?
  • Are there ramps or elevators leading to different levels of the destination?
  • Are the elevators working?
  • Are there signs to indicate the location of elevators and ramps?
  • The internet gives you a brand new tool in accessibility reconnaissance – mapping sites provide a “birds eye” view that can be invaluable as a picture is worth a thousand words!

Hotel Rooms

  • Is there a wheelchair accessible room? If the room is not accessible, how wide is the door leading into the room and into the bathroom?
  • What floor is it on? Is there an elevator?
  • What kind of knobs, handles, or latches do the doors have?
  • Can you move furniture out of the way to make the room more accessible? If you do move furniture, let the housekeeping staff know that you don’t want it put back in place each morning. You may also be able to arrange for the actual removal of unneeded furniture from the room.
  • Can you move the bed to position your wheelchair next to it for transfers? Some hotel beds have immovable pedestals.
  • Can you reach the temperature controls and drapery cords or will you need assistance?
  • Is the telephone within easy reach from the bed?
  • Is the TV remote control moveable or is it attached to the nightstand? If it is attached, it may be out of reach.

If your hotel room poses access problems, try brainstorming solutions with the management. For example, ask them to wrap a towel around exposed hot water pipes under sinks so you do not burn yourself, or ask maintenance to remove the bathroom door if the door itself is making the opening too narrow for your wheelchair.

Bathrooms and Restrooms

  • Is the restroom on the same floor as the meeting room, or reception that you are trying to get to?
  • How large is the clear-space inside of the restroom or bathroom? Is there enough space for you to turn around and get back out?
  • Does the bathroom or restroom door swing into the clear-space inside the room making it impossible to get to the tub, shower or toilet?
  • Can the door on a toilet stall be opened in a single swinging motion with a proper handle that you can operate with your level of hand function?
  • How wide is the doorway into the toilet stall?
  • Does the doorway into the toilet stall block the clear-space needed to maneuver inside or outside of the stall? Is there a grab-bar inside for you to perform a transfer if needed?
  • If the bathroom has a bathtub, does it have the clear-space adjacent to it so you can transfer into the tub and does it have grab rails needed for you to make the transfer?
  • Is there a shower chair available? Most hotels have shower chairs available for your use upon request.
  • If you will be transferring into a bathtub or onto a shower chair you should sit on a waterproof pressure relief cushion if you normally use a pressure relief cushion in your wheelchair. Gel cushions and small strap on cushions are available that will provide pressure relief when sitting on the edge of a bathtub, in a bathtub or on a shower bench.
  • Bath towels are often high up on a shelf over the toilet. Are the towels placed within reach?

Section 1.2

Set Up and Adjustment

The many hours you will spend in your wheelchair dictate that you should customize it to fit your body. A properly adjusted wheelchair will be more comfortable to sit in, easier to maneuver, and less stressful on your muscles and joints during propulsion. Your wheelchair setup drastically affects your comfort, posture, stability, and ability to use your wheelchair efficiently and effectively.

In a properly adjusted wheelchair, you should be sitting with the best posture that is comfortable for you in order to optimize your function, while preventing pain or deformity. You should have enough room for your knees to fit underneath most table tops. Your foot supports should be high enough off the ground to avoid hitting obstacles in your path. Make sure your wheelchair cushion, back support, and other positioning aids are in place when you make the adjustments to your wheelchair. The position of the rear wheel will dramatically change how hard you are working to push and will impact the long term functioning of your shoulders.

Changes to your wheelchair – One change to your wheelchair will affect the fit of all the other components, so be prepared to spend a fair amount of time on this crucial operation. Ideally, you should enlist the help of an ATP/SMS , certified by the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA), when adjusting your wheelchair.

Wheelchair mobility – Whenever you alter the setup of your wheelchair, check your forward, side-to-side, and rear stability with a spotter to make sure your wheelchair performs the way that you want and that it is not too tipsy. (Section 1.4 Learning Your Limits describes how to experience your limits of stability). After each adjustment, test drive your wheelchair on ramps, different surfaces, and side slopes to make sure your mobility needs have been met.

Wheelchair Types

As with automobiles, enterprising inventors have developed many different styles and models of wheelchairs. Each is designed for a different purpose and permits different types of adjustments to be made. There are two basic categories of manual wheelchairs: standard use wheelchairs and rehabilitation wheelchairs.

Standard wheelchair

Standard wheelchairs, also known as depot or institutional wheelchairs, are the no-frills, chromed, steel, or powder coated aluminum workhorses usually found in hospitals, nursing homes, and airports. Standard wheelchairs are designed to be simple to use and durable enough to survive within an institutional setting. The arm supports and foot supports of standard wheelchairs are often welded to the frame and cannot be adjusted or removed. The same standard wheelchair is frequently used by more than one person. Standard wheelchairs are usually sufficient for short-term or infrequent use. They offer the least flexibility in adjustment so they may not be the correct size or configuration for the user. Changes and adjustments must usually be made to standard wheelchairs by replacing components.

Rehabilitation wheelchairs

Rehab wheelchairs are typically ordered and sized to meet the needs of a specific user. They are generally, but not always, built for a user that depends on the wheelchair full time for mobility. Rehab chairs are generally much more durable than standard wheelchairs so that they will hold up to use in all sorts of indoor and outdoor environments. Rehab chairs are designed and built to be either folding or rigid with a folding back support. The arm supports or skirt guards and leg supports are often adjustable in position and removable to facilitate transfer in and out of the wheelchair. Some rehab wheelchairs have adjustments that can be made to change the back support height or angle, rear wheel fore aft position and height and front caster angle. Most rehab wheelchairs are often lighter in weight to make them easier for the user to get the chair in and out of a vehicle.

Vertical axle adjustments on Rehab and Standard wheelchairs

Some standard and most rehab wheelchairs offer several vertical adjustment positions for the front and rear wheel axles.

Moving the rear wheel axle up or down will change:

  • The seat height
  • The seat plane angle
  • The back support angle
  • The angle of the caster wheels
  • The orientation of the frame
  • Your ability to reach the handrims

Types of options available on Rehab and Standard type wheelchairs

  • Type of back support
  • Type of foot support positioning
  • Arm support type
  • Wheel-lock type and position
  • Rear wheel type (e.g. spoke wheels vs. mag (plastic) and size (20”, 24”, 25”, 26" or 27”)
  • Handrim style, outside diameter, grip diameter, material, shape and method of attachment
  • Caster wheel type (e.g. solid versus pneumatic) and size (4”, 5”, 6” or 8”)
  • Frame color
  • Upholstery color and type

Additional types of adjustments available on Rehab wheelchairs

The most common adjustment that is available on a wheelchair is the fore aft and/or vertical adjustment of the rear axle. This allows the adjustment of the seat height and/or angle which can improve the ability to reach the handrims. Changing the seat angle can also improve the stability and/or function of the user in the chair. Multi-adjustable wheelchairs often have one or more of the following adjustments and/or options available:

  • Anti-tippers
  • Vertical and horizontal rear wheel position
  • Seat support angle and or height
  • Front caster position and angle
  • Foot support angle, length and or position
  • Lower leg support angle
  • Back support height and or angle
  • Wheel lock position and type
  • Seat width and or depth
  • Rear wheel camber from vertical to angled out at the bottom
  • Arm support height

This training guide describes the proper fitting parameters for each adjustment later in this chapter. Changing or adjusting one part of your wheelchair often changes the position of another part. You will probably have to perform a series of adjustments to achieve the correct fit.

Other types of wheelchairs

Add-on power systems

Some add-on power systems require removal of the main drive wheels. Wheels with motors in them are then attached to the chair to amplify the push of the wheelchair user. In this case the handrim is essentially a switch that tells the motors to propel forward when the user pushes on the handrim. The system adds weight to the wheelchair. Batteries must be carried on the wheelchair as well.

Some add-on power systems attach underneath the wheelchair frame and have a separate wheel that touches the ground to power the wheelchair. The Smart Drive is a power drive unit that attaches underneath the wheelchair. It senses when the wheelchair user pushes forward on the handrims of the chair and powers the chair to match the strength of the push that the user applies to the handrims. The battery slips under the seat where it hangs on the seat upholstery.

Arm crank wheelchairs

This can be added to a standard manual wheelchair. When the crank drive is attached to the wheelchair it lifts up the front casters of the manual wheelchair. Some wheelchairs are designed for crank driving only.

Basketball wheelchair

These generally have higher seats with very little seat dump, highly cambered main wheels, with a wrap-around frame in the front of the chair to prevent entanglement with other basketball chairs.

Beach wheelchair

A wheelchair designed to negotiate sand and soft surfaces. Usually has wider, balloon tires often with large tread and a long wheelbase to provide added stability.

Lever drive wheelchairs

Some lever drive systems can be retro-fitted onto a standard manual wheelchair, others are designed and manufactured for lever drive use only and have no handrims. A lever drive chair can increase the leverage that can be applied to push the wheelchair forward.

Hemi-height wheelchair

Hemi-height refers to a low floor to seat height. Wheelchairs are sometimes set-up with a “lower” seat to floor height to allow a person with hemiplegia to use one hand and one foot for self-propulsion. This style wheelchair is thus often referred to as a “hemi-wheelchair”.

Off-road wheelchair

An off-road wheelchair has large knobby tires similar to those on a mountain bike and is designed to negotiate rough terrain and unpaved surfaces. The wheelbase is generally longer and, wider which makes it more stable. The rear wheels are generally highly cambered making it even more stable. The front wheels are connected with a tie-rod, but not always. Many off-road wheelchairs have hand operated, dynamic braking and active suspension systems.

One arm drive wheelchairs

These chairs are designed for users that only have the use of one arm to both propel and steer the wheelchair. There are two types of one-arm drive wheelchairs One type has two handrims attached to one wheel. The outside handrim controls the opposite wheel and the inside hand-rim controls the wheel on the same side. With a collapsing scissor drive chair the wheelchair can still fold.

The other type has a lever to drive and steer the wheelchair. Using the left or right hand as ordered, the lever is pumped forward and backward to propel the wheelchair. Twisting the handgrip left or right turns the chair. Some one arm drive wheelchairs use a spring loaded bar that has to be removed from the wheelchair in order to fold the chair for transport.

Pool wheelchair

These chairs are transfer chairs used by a wheelchair user to roll down a ramp into a swimming pool. These chairs are designed to roll into the water and are often constructed of stainless steel or plastic. Most of these chairs have hard solid plastic seats and removable arm supports. They are most often self-propelled with push handles.

Quad rugby wheelchairs

These have a lowered seat height with significant seat dump for postural stability and have cambered rear wheels with a shorter wheelbase for the forward players. The chairs for defensive players have extended foot supports to block other players. The chairs have spoke protectors and a protective cage around the front of the wheelchair.

Racing wheelchair

A lightweight, three-wheeled wheelchair designed in an aerodynamic shape to maximize traveling speed. Used for training and racing events that take place on tracks or on roads.

Recliner wheelchairs

On a recliner chair, the backrest position is easily adjusted relative to the seat; such that when “fully reclined” the backrest and the seat are continuous in a horizontal position – allowing the rider to “lay down” or “stretch out”.

Recliner wheelchairs are most often used by people who use gravity to help balance their trunks, cannot maintain an upright sitting posture, have limited movement at their hips, or need to recline in order to relieve pressure from their buttocks. The rear wheels on recliner wheelchairs are further back, making the wheelchair more stable (harder to tip backwards). It also makes it harder to reach the handrims to propel. The wheelchair may have anti-tip devices installed to prevent the chair from tipping over backwards. Anti-tip devices are small-diameter wheels that attach at the back of the chair to provide additional rear stability.

Shower chair wheelchair

Shower chair wheelchairs are either stainless steel or plastic and are designed for toileting and showering. They usually have a commode style seat and can either be rolled over a toilet or used as a commode with the commode pail in place. They are designed to roll into an accessible shower. Shower chair wheelchairs usually have standard wheel locks, and removable or swing away arm and foot supports. They are made in self-propelled and attendant propelled versions.

Standing wheelchair

These allow the user to achieve a standing position. Most standing wheelchairs are mobile in the sitting position and when they raise to the standing position are not mobile. Some are mobile in the standing position also. They are usually used to access various locations, but there are numerous physical benefits to standing, including: stretching of the muscles, loading the bones, draining the bladder fully, and allowing internal organs to change position from sitting.

Tennis wheelchair

This is designed for playing tennis and other racquet sports. Generally with significant rear wheel camber for increased lateral stability. The user general sits in a very compact position to reduce the moment of inertia for quicker turns. Tennis chairs usually have one or two front casters and sometimes a single anti-tip wheel in the rear.

Tilt-in-space wheelchairs

These allow the user to change the orientation of the seat on the frame by allowing the entire seating system (the seat, back and foot support) to tilt back. This allows for a mechanical weight shift to provide increased postural stability and can provide an effective pressure relief. Tilt-in-space wheelchairs require a long wheelbase for stability. This decreases the maneuverability of the wheelchair.

Wheelchair Component Selection

Most manual wheelchairs feature these basic components:

  • Rear wheels
  • Front caster wheels
  • Solid/pneumatic tires
  • Arm supports
  • Arm support panels or skirt guards
  • Handrims
  • Foot supports
  • Wheel locks
  • Sling or rigid back support
  • Sling or rigid seat support

The materials, design, and adjustment of these components will affect your wheelchairs performance and fit. This training guide describes the proper adjustment and fitting of your wheelchair.

Rear wheels

Many types of rear wheels are available for manual wheelchairs. Most are either mag or spoke. Mag wheels are usually made from hard plastic and typically have only five or six molded ribs between the hub and wheel rim. Mag wheels are virtually maintenance-free and more durable than spoked wheels, but are usually heavier. There are now lighter weight and flexible fibers being used for spokes.

The spokes on a spoked wheel keep the wheel round. The quality of spoked wheels has improved; however, spokes can loosen, break, or fall out. If spokes break or fall out they must be replaced to keep the wheel round. Spokes should also be checked for their tension as uneven tension will also cause the wheel to go “out of round.” The same wrench used to tighten bike wheel spokes can be used on wheelchair wheels. A good bike shop can usually help true your wheels to be round and planar with the spokes evenly tightened. The range of options in spoked wheels is quite large – reflected in the wide price range of spoked wheels. The goal is to find the diameter, size and tread pattern you want with the lightest weight and durability required to fit your lifestyle and propulsion demands.

The diameter of the rear wheels affect how your wheelchair performs. In the past, the standard rear wheel diameter has always been 24 inches. Now it is common to see 25-inch diameter rear wheels. Taller wheelchair users often prefer 26 or even 27-inch diameter wheels. Smaller rider’s, those with shorter arms, may benefit from smaller wheels like 22”. The wheel’s size determines the handrim position in relation to your hands, affecting your ability to propel the chair efficiently, using less effort. You should be using the wheel size that is appropriate for your size, so people with longer arms (taller people) are often more comfortable and efficient pushing on larger wheels. Larger wheels roll over obstacles and rough terrain easier and may improve wheeling efficiency for you.

Rear wheels with quick-release axles allow you to detach your rear wheels in a few seconds without tools for transport or storage.

Rear tires

Rear tires for wheelchairs are either air-filled (pneumatic) or solid (flat-free or airless). Pneumatic tires require a specific air pressure to provide optimal performance. On uneven and outdoor surfaces, pneumatic tires usually give a more cushioned, smoother ride and are easier to propel than solid tires. If you only use your wheelchair on hard, smooth surfaces, solid, flat free, or semi pneumatic tires may make your wheelchair easier to propel. However, the tread on pneumatic tires tends to wear out more quickly than the tread on solid ones. If you have pneumatic tires, you may want to carry a patch kit, pump, and/or spare tire tube at all times to avoid being stranded by a flat. Pneumatic tire rims can be filled with solid inserts instead of tubes providing a tread to reduce slippage when wet while benefitting from the advantages of a maintenance free tire. Note that a flat free filler provides a firmer, stiffer ride than an air-filled tire. Some inserts take away some of the cushioning properties of air-filled inner tube tires.

Solid tires are filled with a foam core or another type of flat-free insert. Solid tires only need to be replaced for tread wear. Because solid tires are stiffer than pneumatic tires they usually have less shock absorbing capabilities and they give a bumpier ride over uneven surfaces. If you only use your wheelchair on smooth, hard surfaces, solid tires can make rolling your wheelchair easier.

Tire tread also affects your wheelchair’s performance. Knobbier tires perform better on rough terrain because they provide more traction. The same knobby tread that grips so well also tracks more mud, snow, and dirt inside than smooth ones. Unless you plan to wear gloves and push on the tire, select knobby tires that do not have the knobs on the side where they will rub against your hands when using the handrims. Knobby tires also require more effort to propel over smooth surfaces than smooth tires. Smooth tires are more maneuverable over hard, flat surfaces, but make rolling over rough terrain more difficult.

Handrims

The handrim is usually attached to the wheel near the wheel’s rim. A spacer on the bolt attaching the handrim to the wheel gives you room to grip the handrim with your fingers. You can use a shorter spacer to bring the handrim closer to the wheel. This narrows the overall wheelchair width but may make it more difficult to get a good grip on the handrim. If the space is too large, you may catch your thumb in the gap.

Hand rims are available in a variety of materials and styles. Metal handrims are sometimes difficult to use because they are slippery and get very cold, especially in winter. Rubber coated or textured handrims might improve your grip and allow you to push more strongly, but the extra friction will cause your hands to burn when going downhill. Because of this problem, coated handrim users usually wear gloves to push their wheelchairs. The coating can also wear off with repeated scraping against obstacles like wall corners and narrow doorways.

Handrims with projections can make it easier to push with less hand function. Handrim projections are often available angled more vertically or horizontally to accommodate different pushing styles.

Ergonomic handrims

A variety of ergonomic handrims are now available. Be sure to try them out. Choose ones that are comfortable for starting, stopping, and turning on flats or hills. Traditional handrims require a strong grip to push up a hill. When shopping for ergonomic handrims choose ones that minimize the amount of grip strength that is required to push your chair on soft surfaces and up hills. This will reduce the repetitive stress and strain on your hands over the long term. The addition of ergonomic handrims is perhaps the greatest improvement you can make to your existing or new wheelchair. Ergonomic handrims that are flexibly attached to the wheels will flex absorbing shock during propulsion and allow you to squeeze through narrow doorways as well.

Wheel locks

Wheel locks are sometimes just called brakes or parking brakes. Wheel locks are generally available in low- and high-mount versions and are selected when you order your chair. Low-mount wheel locks interfere less with your hand’s movements but may be harder for some people to engage and disengage. Swing-away wheel locks (also known as scissor wheel locks) may be desirable since you can avoid hitting your thumbs on them when pushing directly on the tires. Some manufacturers have designed wheel locks that mount under the seat so they do not get in the way of pushing. Remember, locking the wheels, although very effective at stabilizing the chair in the right conditions, will not always keep your wheelchair from sliding if the ground is uneven, smooth, wet, or sloped.

You will have to adjust the mounting of your wheel locks after you change the rear wheel position, size, or type of tire so they will work effectively. If you use air-filled tires, the function of the wheel lock will change with the tire pressure. As your tire loses air, the wheel lock may slip. Check your owner’s manual and follow the manufacturer’s instructions to determine how far the wheel locks should penetrate into the tire when they are in the locked position.

Wheel locks are not running brakes that can be applied while you are moving to slow down the speed of your roll. However dynamic wheel locks are available for manual wheelchairs that can be used while traveling downhill. This type of brake serves as both a wheel lock and a dynamic wheel lock.

Front caster wheels

The two small wheels at the front of your wheelchair are called the caster wheels or casters. Caster wheels can swivel or pivot in all directions and improve your wheelchair’s maneuverability. Caster stem housings connect the caster wheels to your wheelchair frame.

Many different types of caster wheels with a range of performance features are available. Small, hard wheels (like rollerblade wheels) can improve maneuverability on hard, flat surfaces but tend to catch in the cracks and crevices of rough surfaces. Larger pneumatic caster wheels are less likely to catch in crevices or on obstacles and handle better over rough terrain but are harder to pivot on almost all surfaces.

Solid rubber or plastic caster wheels usually give a rougher ride than pneumatic caster wheels because they have little shock-absorbing ability. Some users do not like the vibration that occurs using solid rubber caster or plastic caster wheels.

Semi-pneumatic or pneumatic caster wheels give a smoother ride than solid caster wheels and roll over all sorts of obstacles outdoors; however, pneumatic caster wheels have more rolling resistance on hard flat surfaces and can go flat.

Arm supports

The preference for arm supports (often called armrests) varies. Many wheelchair users feel they cannot live without arm supports. Other users do not want arm supports at all. Your personal preference, level of function, and balance will determine whether you want or need arm supports and will impact the type of arm support that will work best for you. Arm supports can provide additional support if you have limited trunk balance and can act as side-to-side stability anchors when you reach sideways. However, many manual wheelchair users do not use arm supports because they may get in the way during propulsion, weight shifts and transfers. They also add to the overall weight of your wheelchair making it somewhat more cumbersome to manage. Transfers in and out of your wheelchair and weight shifts may require more strength and balance without arm supports. If you choose to use arm supports, make sure the style, placement, and height does not interfere with propelling your wheelchair. Your arm supports should be used for resting and should allow you to place your elbows slightly forward of your shoulders when resting your arms.

Verify Correct Seating Dimensions

Seat width

Your wheelchair seat should be as narrow as possible without touching your hipbones or thigh bones. If the seat is too narrow, it could cause a pressure ulcer. If the seat is too wide, you might have difficulty propelling your chair and getting through doorways. A wide chair might also cause you to lean to the side when you sit or propel, which could lead to the development of a spinal deformity like scoliosis.

There should be about half an inch of space on either side of your hips. The space gives you a little room to move and tuck in your clothing. Seat width affects the overall width of your wheelchair.

Seat depth

The right seat depth is essential for providing the right amount of support under your thighs. If the seat is too shallow, you will experience more pressure on your sitting area, and you could develop pressure ulcers. If the seat is too deep, you will be unable to move all the way against the back of the chair and you will end up slouching backward. A seat that is too deep could interfere with circulation to your legs and cause pressure ulcers behind your knees.

The correct seat depth typically permits about one inch of space between the front edge of the cushion and the back of your knees. The distance needed may be larger if you regularly use your hands to lift your legs, or if you propel your wheelchair with your legs and feet.

If the seat upholstery or seat is too long:

  • Talk to a seating specialist about shortening the upholstery or the solid seat beneath your seat cushion.

If the seat cushion is too long:

  • Get a shorter cushion or if possible, modify the rear corners of the cushion so it fits farther back on the seat support surface of your wheelchair.
  • Move your back support further forward or get a thicker back support, which will move you forward in your seat and shorten the overall seat depth. Remember that this might also change your position in relation to the handrims, so you might have to make other adjustments too.
  • Another option is to move the seat cushion back. Sometimes the cushion will even slide under the back support. Make sure your buttocks are still positioned correctly on the cushion.

If the seat is too short:

  • Move the back support back if you can. This will allow you to move farther back in your wheelchair, lengthening the seat depth and making room for a longer seat cushion. Remember that this might change your position in relation to your handrims so you may need to make other adjustments when you change the position of the back support.
  • Use a longer seat cushion supported over the front edge of the seat upholstery by a firm board or sheet of stiff plastic.

If the seat cushion is too short:

  • Get a longer cushion.

Wheelchair Setup

When determining the dimensions for a new wheelchair, refer to A guide to Wheelchair Selection (Axelson, Minkel & Chesney, 2006) for guidance. If you already have a wheelchair that has a suitable seat width and depth, adjustments can be made to the chair to make it a better fit. Below is a prioritized list of adjustments that should be considered.

Seat cushion

The seat cushion that you need to sit on has to be considered first, before all of the other adjustments on your wheelchair can be considered. Every wheelchair user that is sitting in a wheelchair for extended periods of time is going to want to sit on some type of seat cushion even if the cushion is just a simple 1 or 2 inch foam cushion. For wheelchair users without sensation or with difficulty moving, a pressure relieving cushion is going to be an important consideration. Generally the more pressure relief the taller the cushion is going to be but this does not necessarily mean that your sitting bones are going to be higher off the sling seating. When making measurements for a wheelchair, it is typically best to make all of the measurements while sitting on the seat cushion that will be used in the wheelchair. Some users like to sit on different cushions depending on what they are doing. If a sport chair is being used with one type of seat cushion and an everyday wheelchair is being used with a different seat cushion for everything else, each wheelchair will need to be set up and adjusted while sitting on the specific seat cushion that will be used for the specific wheelchair. Some users have two different types of cushions that they sit on that are different heights for the same wheelchair. This can be accommodated by using an insert beneath the lower height seat cushion so that the height of the seat cushion is the same as the higher seat cushion.

Adjusting the seat angle

Moving the rear axle mounting location up will lower the rear of your wheelchair frame which causes the chair to tip back and lowers the seat height. Then the caster stem housings will need to be adjusted to a vertical position (perpendicular to the ground) so that the chair will roll correctly. This adjustment is possible with most higher end “rehab” wheelchair models. Occasionally there is a vertical adjustment for the caster stem housings to lower the front of your wheelchair frame as well. In other cases it is possible to move the caster wheel upward in the front caster forks. Another possible change is to use a shorter front caster fork or a shorter caster stem bolt. Using a smaller diameter front caster wheel is another way to lower the front end of your wheelchair. Moving the rear axle down will raise your wheelchair frame in the rear, which will raise the seat height in the rear but will cause the seat support surface to tilt forward.

After adjusting the vertical position of the rear wheels, you may also have to change the height and/or angle of the caster wheels to maintain your desired seat plane angle. Make sure the caster stem housings are vertical (perpendicular to the ground) so that the chair will roll correctly.

If you adjust your vertical position in your wheelchair via the seat rather than the wheel axle, you will not have to readjust the caster stem housings when you change the seat and back position. This adjustment is only possible on some wheelchair models.

Adjusting the back support height

The back support height should be comfortable and provide good lower back support. A lower back support lets you move your arms and upper body more. If needed, a higher back support provides more upper-body support.

The back posts or push handles should not interfere with arm movements while you are wheeling. They may be adjustable in height. Check with your supplier or the user manual for further information. Many wheelchair users do not like push handles since they get in the way and they seem to encourage well-meaning people to push the wheelchair without asking. Fold-down, push handles are available on some wheelchairs. They can be put in place when you need them and folded down when they are not needed. Back supports are also available without push handles but if you sometimes need help from someone else to propel or maneuver your chair, push handles make it much easier for the assistant.

Adjusting the back support angle

Your back support angle should provide a comfortable sitting posture while you are upright in the wheelchair. The back support angle should not cause you to slump, curl your shoulders, hold your head forward for balance, or cause you to slide out of your seat.

The angle formed by the seat and the back support is called the seat-­to-back angle. The seat-to-back angle greater than 90° is an open angle, while an angle smaller (tighter) than 90° is a closed angle. An open angle lets you use gravity to help balance your trunk. People who cannot flex well at the hips often use an open seat-to-back support angle. However, an open angle may cause people to slide out of their chairs. The open angle may also change your position in relation to the handrims making your wheelchair harder to propel.

A closed angle cradles the body in the curve of the seat, holding you in place and often reducing leg spasticity. Some people combine this with a higher rear axle position which lowers the back of the seat creating even more of a cradle. This is sometimes called seat dumping. People with high spinal cord injuries and very poor trunk balance prefer a more closed seat-to-back angle for enhanced trunk stability. Not all wheelchair users can tolerate a more closed (or tighter) seat-to-back angle which requires more hip flexion. Be sure you have sufficient range of motion at the hips if you are considering closing your seat-to-back angle. This can be helpful to people with limited fore aft trunk movement and stability as it provides the needed support by changing the direction of the force of gravity while increasing maneuverability by keeping the shoulders in a better position to push the wheels.

Adjusting the seat surface height, leg support, and foot clearance

Your seat height and leg support length and angle are interdependent and must be determined together. Your seat height determines the vertical space available for your legs thereby determining the degree of leg angle necessary to accommodate the length of your legs. Inversely, your leg angle can determine how high your seat must be to accommodate your leg length, leg angle, and your feet on the foot supports. It is important that the seat is high enough for your foot supports to clear obstacles and low enough for your knees to fit under tables. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines, standard tables or counters should have knee clearance spaces at least 27 inches high.

Your leg angle will impact your comfort and the length of your footprint. A larger angle from the bottom of the seat to the back of the calves will allow greater foot support clearance and/or a lower seat height. This means that your feet will be out further in front of you which makes your overall length longer and might make maneuvering in small spaces more difficult. Some people will choose to have their legs angled under the chair. This reduces the length of your footprint and provides a “sportier” look, but will decrease your stability and may impact the blood circulation in your legs and feet.

There are factors that can be altered to help accommodate the necessary seat height, leg angle, and ground clearance. These factors include the vertical rear wheel height, the caster height, the axel position, and your seat cushion thickness. Larger rear wheels and front casters will raise the chair higher off the ground. Smaller rear wheels and front casters will lower the chair. Lowering the rear wheel axle position will raise the rear of your wheelchair higher off the ground while raising the axle position will bring the rear of the wheelchair closer to the ground. You can increase the seat cushion thickness to raise the seat height by adding padding or a solid insert under the cushion. You can decrease cushion thickness to lower the seat height.

Making changes to your axel position and wheel height will change your position in relation to the handrims which may make it harder or easier to propel your wheelchair. Lowering the seat height will make it easier to reach the handrims, which might provide more power when you propel your wheelchair. If you are too low in relation to the handrims but need the lower seat height, you can replace the rear wheels with smaller diameter ones. You can also use smaller rear wheels if you want the seat height to be even lower.

There are other ways to raise your wheelchair seat height. The height of some wheelchair seat support surfaces are adjustable and can be raised to accommodate leg length and leg clearance. Seat supports with extensions can also be installed to raise the seat higher.

If your legs are long, you might have to compromise between sitting comfort and leg clearance. It is more important for you to fit properly and comfortably in your wheelchair than to be able to roll under all tables. If you need more clearance under a table at home or work you could raise the table up higher. You can place a layer of plywood beneath the base or between the tabletop and the base. If the table has individual legs you can make blocks of wood with shallow holes on the tops of them to keep the blocks positioned under the table legs. Make sure the table is secure and will not slide off whatever you use to raise the table up. A higher seat is also useful for people who have difficulty standing up from or sitting down onto low surfaces.

Foot supports

After determining your seat height and leg angle, adjust the positioning of your foot supports. You should have your cushion, back support, and other positioning aids in place when adjusting your foot supports. Don’t forget to put your normal shoes on; sole height affects your leg positioning. Make sure you are seated upright against the back of the chair. When adjusting the foot supports:

  • Make sure you have clearance of two inches underneath the foot plates so your foot plates do not get caught on small obstacles in the roadway.
  • Also have clearance for your knees under desks and tables.
  • Some experienced users ride with less ground clearance so that if the wheelchair tips forward on a level surface, the foot supports themselves will prevent the chair from tipping over forward.

If you do not have enough clearance, you might need to readjust the seat plane angle and height. When your feet are supported at the correct height by your foot supports, your thighs should rest in a balanced manner on your cushion. Foot supports that are too high can lead to little or no weight under your thighs (especially near your knees) and cause excessive weight under your sitting bones, the ischial tuberosities, which could lead to pressure sore development. You might need to compromise on your knee height and how easily you can roll under tables without hitting, in order to get the best leg support.

Some wheelchairs can be ordered with a steeper footrest angle at the front, allowing your legs to be tucked further under the chair versus having your feet out in front of your wheelchair. This shortens the overall length and may make it easier for you to maneuver your wheelchair in tight spaces.

Swing-away foot supports can be moved out of the way or removed. When you take your feet off the foot supports and swing them out of the way or remove them, you should be able to get closer to obstacles but, your feet will be dangling. If they reach the ground, you may still get the support you need to hold your balance while sitting close to a desk or table, but if you need your feet and legs to be well supported in order to have trunk balance, removing your feet from the foot supports may cause you to lose your balance. Removing or swinging away the foot supports may be necessary for you to perform safe transfers to and from your wheelchair.

Adjusting rear wheel camber

Camber is the off-vertical tilt of the rear wheels. It widens the distance between the bottoms of the propulsion wheels and narrows the distance between the tops of the wheels. Wheel camber increases side-to-side and forward stability. Camber also increases your wheelchair’s overall width, which may make it difficult to roll through narrow doorways. Increasing wheel camber may also make your seat width narrower so make sure your hips are not rubbing or squeezed. Follow the owner’s manual instructions to adjust wheel camber.

When adjusting the camber of your rear wheels, be careful not to set them toed in or out. Toed out means the front edge of the rear wheels are pointed outward away from your feet. Toed in means the front edge of your rear wheels are pointed inward, toward each other and your feet. Setting the wheels to toe in or toe out will make your wheelchair more difficult to propel and causes the tires to wear unevenly.

Adjusting the rear wheel axle horizontally

Next, set the horizontal position of the rear wheel to meet your stability requirements. Surprisingly, a completely stable wheelchair is not always desirable. As with many vehicles, including cars, bicycles, and motorcycles, a wheelchair that is less stable in the rearward direction is also easier to maneuver. Your chair will provide the best performance if you position the rear axle as far forward as you can while maintaining your balance comfortably during all types of activities. Rear wheels that are set too far forward may interfere with the movement of the front caster wheels while making the wheelbase extremely short and your wheelchair unstable. You will tip over backwards too easily if you set the rear axle too far forward for your ability and the environments where you use your wheelchair.

Moving the rear axle in the fore/aft direction (forward or backward) changes the location of the center of gravity with respect to the rear wheels. The more forward the axle is positioned, the less weight will be over the front caster wheels. This will make the chair easier to tip back and pop into a wheelie, but will also make it more difficult to push up a hill without tipping backward. It is much easier to maneuver over obstacles and turn around in small spaces in a wheelie (Section 1.9 has more information about wheelies.)

If you know how to hold a “wheelie” – balance the chair on the rear wheels only – you may want to start the rear wheel adjustment about 2” forward of the back posts. Test the stability of the chair. With either someone behind you to “spot”, or by having an anti-tipping device on the chair, give the chair a push forward, are you comfortable with the response? If the chair tips back to far, or too fast; consider moving the wheels back slightly. If you are comfortable with the chair’s response, you may want to move the wheel further forward to find the spot where you are uncomfortable, then move it back slightly. True wheelie performance begins at the edge of your comfort zone.

Test drive each new setup by going up a standard ramp with a spotter to make sure the position of the rear wheel axle will not cause your wheelchair to tip over backward.

Adjusting the caster stem housing

Your caster stem housings should be perpendicular to the ground. If they are not, your front caster wheels may become afflicted with “shopping cart syndrome” and flutter when you propel your chair. This may also make it difficult to turn your wheelchair or change direction. Use a book or carpenter’s angle to make sure the caster stem housing is perpendicular to the ground. Consult your owner’s manual for detailed instructions on how to adjust the caster stem housing angle.

The optimal sitting position for most wheelchair users is with a seat-to-back support angle somewhere between 90-100° and a knee angle in the range of 90-120° of extension. Some wheelchair users like to sit with their feet tucked under their wheelchair creating a tighter knee angle of 70-80°. This may shorten the overall length of your wheelchair and make it easier to maneuver. Shown: 90° seat-to-back support angle and 120° of knee extension.