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What is a Manual Wheelchair?

By Alicia Sparks
Updated Feb 13, 2024
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The simplest definition of a manual wheelchair is a chair with wheels designed to transport a sick, injured, or otherwise disabled person from one place to another. Depending on the person’s condition, he may be able to operate the wheelchair himself by using special round handles that loop around the wheels, or someone may need to push the wheelchair for him by using the handles on the back. The manual wheelchair is one of two basic types of wheelchairs. The other is the power wheelchair. There are both disadvantages and advantages to manual wheelchairs, and it’s best to learn them both before choosing a manual chair over an electric one.

Even when they were the only option, manual wheelchairs have always had drawbacks. The biggest disadvantage of a manual wheelchair is that it requires physical exertion, which is an inconvenience or an impossibility for certain patients. Depending on a patient’s condition, even operating the manual wheelchair on a flat, level surface could be difficult. Even patients with adequate upper body strength could find it difficult to maneuver a manual wheelchair up hills or other sloped areas. An electric wheelchair eliminates the need for the patient to exert any energy or seek assistance from anyone else.

Despite the disadvantages, there are quite a few advantages of a manual wheelchair. A manual chair usually weighs less than a power wheelchair, which makes it easier to load and unload in vehicles and carry up and down stairs. Storing manual wheelchairs is convenient due to their foldable cross-brace frame design, and owners never have to worry about charging or replacing the batteries that run electric wheelchairs. Generally, manual wheelchairs are significantly less expensive than power wheelchairs. Due to the price, many health insurance providers prefer covering manual wheelchairs, and many patients are able to pay for the expenses themselves if their providers won’t.

Unless a patient’s condition makes it impossible for him to operate a manual wheelchair, manual wheelchairs are usually the standard issue by hospitals, physical rehabilitation centers, and long-term care facilities. Once a patient is well enough to go home, the wheelchair he uses is usually up to him. If he decides to use a manual wheelchair, he should research the various types of these wheelchairs before making a choice. He can do this by visiting medical supply stores and websites, and reading reviews and customer opinions. He can also talk with his health care provider and other wheelchair users he knows personally before choosing the best manual chair for him.

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Discussion Comments
By Feryll — On Jul 29, 2014

This article says that manual wheelchairs are lighter than the power wheelchairs. This makes sense because the manual ones don't have the extra weight of a motor. However, there have been a lot of advances in the power chairs over the last several years. There are some newer models that are much lighter and easier to load into and take out of a vehicle.

By Drentel — On Jul 28, 2014

My mother went into an assisted living facility when she was sick with Alzheimer's disease. At first, she was in very good physical condition. She was able to walk and move around without any problems. Once the disease got worse she began to have more problems. She had a tough time keeping her balance, so she would fall without warning.

With old people, falling is one of the biggest concerns because falls can lead to broken bones. We bought my mother a wheelchair. Unfortunately there were some patients who couldn't afford new chairs. That's why if you have an old chair no longer being used you should donate it to a facility or an individual.

When my mother died, we let the facility keep the chair and use it as it was needed. Donating used wheelchairs can go a long way in helping out other people.

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