How (and why) I chose my first wheelchair.

Hello, and thanks for visiting my blog! For a while now I’ve wanted to talk about my experience researching, purchasing, and using a wheelchair for the first time. As this is a lot to cover, I’ve decided to split it into two sections, and today we’re going to be looking at my experience researching and purchasing a wheelchair.

A few things to note: I self-funded my wheelchair and needed to purchase one within tight time constraints (more on that later!), I am an ambulatory wheelchair user, and much of the information I used was what I could research online including the experiences of others like me and from occupational therapists. I will list some handy videos and websites I referenced at the end of this post!

Disclaimer: this is not medical advice and I am not a medical professional in any way. This post is to share my experiences purchasing a wheelchair myself in consultation with a qualified physiotherapist.

Why did I need a wheelchair?

So, what caused me to purchase a wheelchair? I’ve been using a walking stick to get around now for a couple of years, but in May I injured my hips and began experiencing frequent pain when walking. The physiotherapist I consulted at the time advised me not to keep pushing when I experienced the pain, and to rest frequently. Good advice- but not very conducive to being out an about! I was doubly concerned as I had a big event coming up which included a lot of walking, and from past experience didn’t provide a lot of opportunities to stop and rest. Eventually I realised that attending the huge MCM Comic Con with just my walking stick was not going to be feasible. I would need to purchase a wheelchair for this event, and other similar multi-day events that I just couldn’t attend anymore as a walking stick user.

It was a lot to come to terms with, and I didn’t have much time to do so. I’ll talk more about the emotional aspect of accepting that I need a wheelchair in my next post, but for now, to the research!

Wheelchair research.

As someone who had never used a wheelchair before, I felt quite out of my depth. Luckily the internet has a wealth of handy blog posts, websites and YouTube videos that taught me the terminology and what to look out for. I’ll leave all the helpful sources I used at the end of this post, but through my research I eventually specified the important points for me.

The wheelchair had to…

  • Be a manual, self-propel chair.
  • Be light enough that I could propel it myself (despite my wonky hands and wrists and hypermobility).
  • Be able to fit in my partner’s car.
  • Not feel incredibly medical and sterile.
  • Allow me to sit and push with the best posture possible.
  • Be within my budget.

I checked online for local showrooms where I could try out a range of options, as every person whose advice I had read stressed how important it is to try as many options as you can. After the surprises that came with my own experience, I have to agree 100%! I scoped out some of the wheelchairs on the websites of my local showrooms and will admit that I had a secret favourite! I took some notes on how to look out for the correct posture, and armed with my Google Doc notes and my supportive partner, we set out in quest of the best possible chair within my budget.


Shopping for a wheelchair.

I had looked up two local wheelchair showrooms. One was a company with a very small showroom, and one was a big national chain with a large one. I won’t lie- I definitely thought that I would be purchasing from the larger showroom and was a bit sceptical about the smaller one, but wanted to do the sensible thing and give both a try!

I had emailed both companies beforehand to ask what in-store help they had available, as I wanted a trained eye on me in case we needed a more professional opinion. The large showroom did not properly answer my question the first time and it took a few responses back and fourth to ascertain that they didn’t offer much in the way of help- they recommended I go to an occupational therapist if I had specialised needs, although my expectations were more about having an extra, experienced opinion on the chairs I would try. The smaller showroom were incredibly friendly and assured me that while they weren’t trained to measure customers for chairs, they would offer any assistance they could in finding me the best sized chair for my frame.

The small showroom.

Our experience at the small showroom was great. The staff member left her post to help us get out a selection of chairs to try, set them up for me, gave some general pointers as to the differences between them, and made me feel comfortable and at ease. It was a positive customer experience and to my surprise we found the first chair we tried, which was also one of the cheapest, to be the most comfortable for me. I was surprised at how easily I could manoeuvre it, and I made sure to give it a test drive as well as seeing how it felt for my partner to push.

This chair fit me the best, and although it wasn’t as sleek as I had been hoping, it was definitely a frontrunner as we left to try the other showroom.

The large showroom.

“It looks like the Apple store in here.” The words of my partner as we entered a very new and flashy showroom definitely helped lighten the mood. He was right, it was very flashy and modern, with mobility aids lit from beneath on plinths as you walked in. We were approached by a salesperson who took us over to the wheelchairs. After explaining what I wanted, I asked to see the fun-coloured, sporty-looking chair from their website- my favourite from my research.

It was immediately clear that this chair was not for me. The fit was all wrong and it was much too low. It also wasn’t especially comfortable. The salesperson didn’t set up the chair like at the small showroom or apply the brakes for me to get in it. I didn’t feel I had a knowledgeable professional helping me and it was clear that sadly the stylish chair was a bad fit.

We asked to try other models, and the salesperson recommended a couple that were out of the price range I had given. Surprisingly, some of the most expensive ones I tried felt much flimsier and more uncomfortable than those on the lower end of my budget.

We headed back to the small showroom and I purchased the first wheelchair I had tried. I grabbed a thick cushion for comfort and we checked out, eventually wrangling the wheelchair into the boot of the car! No one was more surprised than me that the chair at the lower end of my budget turned out to be the best option. It is definitely vital to try a range of chairs before you purchase, as I would have definitely gone for the flashy one if I were choosing online.

My advice for choosing your first wheelchair.

My biggest piece of advice is to try as wide a range of wheelchairs as you can, even the ones you might be tempted to write off at first glance. Photographs and descriptions online can make things seem more well-made and comfortable than they really are, and sometimes price is no indication of quality! If you can’t get out to your local showroom, most companies will happily come to your home to do a demonstration.

It is just as important to know what you want and what to look for. Do as much research and learning as you can beforehand, and keep a list of the things you need to consider. Learn how to identify good posture in a wheelchair, and if you can, definitely bring someone you trust along. Remember, the tips of others can be helpful but every single person has different needs and requirements. What works for me may not work for you. I would also recommend trying multiple companies as the knowledge and friendliness of the small showroom we tried made a massive difference to my experience.

The chosen wheelchair.

My wheelchair is the Drive DeVilbiss Lightweight Self-Propelled chair. I have used it since (posts on my experience using it at comic con coming up!) and it has held up well so far. Having a wheelchair has changed my life. It has allowed me to go out and about and do things on days when I otherwise would have to say no. There is an incredibly damaging stigma that using a wheelchair, and especially using one for the first time, somehow means you are “giving up”. This could not be further from the truth. Wheelchairs provide freedom, access to living a more independent life, and in choosing the right mobility aid, you are taking your power back.

I hope this blog post has been helpful to you if you’re preparing to choose your first wheelchair. As I stated above, I am not a medical professional, and strongly advise you to consult a physiotherapist or occupational therapist about the best options for you if you can. I know that using any mobility aid for the first time can be daunting, but it becomes much easier with time, self-compassion and a good support network. I hope you have those things and that your first experience is a good one.

Sources.

Below are some helpful resources I used in gathering information on buying my first wheelchair.

Videos:

Websites and blog posts: