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Power Wheelchair

See how an individual with mobility issues may be assisted by a power wheelchair.

Some individuals with debilitating disabilities will require a power wheelchair. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Some individuals with debilitating disabilities will require a power wheelchair.

Power Wheelchair

A power wheelchair helps many disabled people who lack the stamina to push a manual wheelchair. Other conditions that may require a power wheelchair include:

• Spinal curvature, such as from scoliosis
• Poor arm, leg or torso control
• Degenerative muscle disease, such as post-polio syndrome
• Repetitive motion injuries from pushing a manual wheelchair

Once nothing more than a manual wheelchair with an attached motor, battery and joystick, the power wheelchair has evolved into something much more sophisticated. Although they typically weigh more and are more prone to break down than manual wheelchairs, power wheelchairs let their riders enjoy many of the same activities they enjoyed on foot or in a manual wheelchair - and their power systems let them do some things manual wheelchairs cannot. Although power wheelchairs come in two basic configurations -- traditional and platform - specialized wheelchairs are available to meet specific needs of the user.

Traditional Power Wheelchair Configuration

A traditional configuration power wheelchair consists of two large drive wheels in the back and two smaller wheels or casters in the front. It includes power-assisted wheelchairs designed to let the rider grip the rear drive wheels and push the chair along, using the motor to augment the rider's effort. This type of chair is reinforced to handle the weight of the motor, battery and control system; add-on power-assist systems are available to convert sturdier manual wheelchairs into power wheelchairs. Designed for quick release, the power-assist components make the chair easier to transport, but do not perform as well or last as long as in platform configuration power wheelchairs, where the power system is a permanent part of the chair.

Platform Power Wheelchair Configuration

A platform configuration power wheelchair consists of a seat mounted on a platform, or power base, to which either four or six wheels are attached. The platform is usually rectangular, but a round shape allows for a tighter turning radius. Most platform configuration chairs place the drive wheels at either the front or back, although some six-wheel power chairs put the drive wheels in the center. Rear-wheel drive models offer greater speed, while front and mid-wheel drive models offer greater maneuverability. Front-wheel drive units are also generally safer for outdoor use.

A platform configuration also allows for special seats that tilt, recline, raise the legs or otherwise support the body better than a conventional cushion can. Some power wheelchair seats can even raise the body to a standing position or lower it to floor level. Power seats either come with the chair or are bought separately as a retrofit.

Specialized Power Wheelchairs

Having an onboard power system lets a power wheelchair do things a manual wheelchair cannot. In addition to offering a specialized power seat, a power wheelchair can be configured to climb curbs and stairs, or be equipped with four-wheel drive for travel over rough outdoor terrain. (However, a chair able to climb stairs indoors can pose considerable risk for the rider and should be tested thoroughly before being purchased.) According to the University of Pittsburg, the power system also allows a variety of control options for riders with limited mobility, ranging from the familiar armrest joystick to a "sip-and-puff" control straw to an array of headrest sensors that effectively turn the rider's head into a joystick.

Originally used in wheelchairs for sports, manual and power wheelchairs are using lighter-weight materials, such as titanium and aluminum, so they are easier to lift into a vehicle for transport. Power wheelchairs can also be fitted with balloon wheels to move over sand like a dune buggy.

Wheelchair Standards

Although some power wheelchairs carry a government seal of approval, such as a stair-climbing power chair approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, most power wheelchair standards are maintained by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). According to Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA), they provide technical expertise to ANSI for the development of ISO standards relating to assistive devices.

Medicare Coverage for a Wheelchair

According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a wheelchair is only covered if the patient needs it in the home and has a face-to-face evaluation with a doctor who writes a prescription. An occupational or physical therapist may be more qualified at writing a prescription that specifies what type of wheelchair is needed. It is helpful if the assisting clinician is certified as an Assistive Technology Provider (ATP) and if the rehabilitative technology supplier (the powered wheelchair provider) has also received specialized training and is certified. Chosen carefully and wisely, a powered wheelchair renews a sense of freedom and independence through enhanced mobility.

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