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Tips For Choosing A Powered Wheelchair

People tend to think about purchasing a powered wheelchair when they can no longer manage their standard manual wheelchair. First, however, it may be worth considering the range of active user wheelchairs that are available. These are manual wheelchairs that are lightweight and have large propelling wheels on an adjustable axle, so that the position of the wheelchair user within the chair can be adjusted to optimise their propelling and manoeuvring potential. A wheelchair user who may, previously, have found propelling a standard wheelchair too difficult may find that the reduced effort needed to propel an active user wheelchair is sufficient to regain independent mobility. The relative lightness of these wheelchairs, especially over powered wheelchairs, is an advantage if the chair has to be lifted and transported in and out of a car boot.

The wide range of battery-powered vehicles currently available for the disability market is divided into three main categories: powered wheelchairs, scooters, and buggies.

Highway regulations group powered vehicles into two categories: Class 2 and Class 3 vehicles.

CLASS 2 POWERED WHEELCHAIRS

Class 2 powered wheelchairs can travel up to 6.4kph (4mph) on pavements and on the road only to cross from one side of the road to the other. They can be divided into sub-sections:

Indoor use only

• for indoor use;
• small turning circle;
• could be used on a level patio area or in a small, level garden;
• short distance range.

Indoor and outdoor use

• for indoor use;
• for outdoor use over standard terrain;
• over low kerbs;
• short/medium distance range.

Outdoor use only

• limited indoor use;
• outdoor use including uneven ground;
• kerb climbing up to 10cm;
• medium to long distance range.

The wheelchairs that can be used both indoors and outdoors tend to be the most popular types because they are more versatile. Wheelchairs usually have to be taken indoors for storage and maintenance, if for nothing else, so the overall size and manoeuvrability of an indoor/outdoor wheelchair suits most people.

CLASS 3 POWERED WHEELCHAIRS

These tend to be larger than Class 2 vehicles and can be used on the roads where they can travel up to 12.8kph (8mph).

Owners of class 3 vehicles do not have to hold a current driving licence. Drivers should be disabled and aged 14 or over, and they must be familiar with the Highway Code and drive in accordance with these rules at all times. This includes complying with relevant eyesight requirements and not driving under the influence of alcohol. Class 3 vehicles are not allowed on motorways, cycle lanes or bus lanes. Although legally allowed on dual carriageways, the size and relative slow speed of a Class 3 wheelchair can be hazardous to larger, faster moving traffic, and the driver may feel extremely vulnerable.

It may be possible to enrol on a training course and receive instruction on how to drive your wheelchair safely on the highway. Your local road safety officer or Mobility Centre may know of courses running in your area.

Standard features of class 3 wheelchairs are:

• four wheels fitted with chunkier tyres;

• kerb climbing 10cm or more;

• long distance range;

• two-speed settings: slow (6.4kph) for pavement use, and fast (12.8kph) for road use, usually changed by the flick of a switch;

• lights, indicators, horn, rear-view mirror and rear reflectors (all required by law). In addition, if the vehicle is to be used on a dual carriageway it must be fitted with a flashing beacon that can be used optionally when driving on all roads to make other road users more aware of the presence of a wheelchair.

PRELIMINARY CONSIDERATIONS

Before you proceed, you must be clear in your mind what you want the wheelchair for. If you need it to improve your indoor mobility, you must have level or ramped access into your home. Doorways must be wide enough to accommodate the wheelchair width and there must be enough space within rooms to enable you to turn your wheelchair around. It may be necessary to do some uncluttering of your home environment to ensure routes through your home are unimpeded. You will need to compare the size and turning circle of the wheelchairs you are looking at.

If you are intending to use the wheelchair outside, bear in mind that handling the wheelchair over uneven ground, passing pedestrians and crossing roads, requires a fair amount of confidence. You must look at the distance you intend to travel and the routes you will be taking to get an idea of what you will be requiring your wheelchair to do.

In addition to the ability to handle the controls you must also:

• be able to judge distances and widths (to safely manoeuvre the wheelchair between doorways and through busy streets);
• have reasonable eyesight;
• be aware of your responsibilities as a wheelchair user.

People with visual, perceptual or intellectual difficulties and who want to independently control a wheelchair should seek medical advice and have a thorough assessment at a Mobility Centre.

You will need a secure and waterproof place in which to store your powered wheelchair, close to a power point to charge its batteries. If you are keeping your vehicle in your home, make sure access is possible. It may be necessary for you to install an access ramp leading into your home. Once indoors, ensure the vehicle is not going to obstruct essential circulation space. If you live in a block of flats and plan to keep your wheelchair in a shared hallway, ask permission of other residents and your landlord, and inform the local fire officer to ensure that the wheelchair will not cause a hazard in a fire emergency.

TRY BEFORE YOU BUY

Powered wheelchairs are expensive so it is essential that you do not rush into buying a vehicle that you later find is not entirely suitable.

Before buying, aim to try out and compare a range of different powered wheelchairs. This can be done at several venues:

DISABLED LIVING CENTRES

You may have a Disabled Living Centre (DLC) near you. People can visit these equipment demonstration centres to see and try out ranges of equipment and receive impartial advice to help them choose appropriately. Not all DLCs display wheelchairs; some focus on equipment to help with tasks within the home. You will need to contact your nearest centre to find out if they can help you. Up-to-date addresses are held by the Disabled Living Centres Council, or look on their website at www.dlcc.org.uk.

MOBILITY CENTRES

Some mobility centres (that primarily advise on vehicle adaptations for disabled drivers/passengers) also offer advice on powered wheelchairs. Some have an outdoor area for trying out vehicles over different gradients and terrain, and can more formally assess your needs, usually for a fee. If you are applying to a charity for funding for your wheelchair, you could include the cost of the assessment in your grant application.

Mobility centres may also have a selection of vehicle racks and hoists on display as examples of ways of transferring and transporting your wheelchair.

To find out the address of your nearest Mobility Centre, contact the UK Forum of Mobility Centres or visit the Mobility Unit website www.mobility-unit.dtlr.gov.uk/lists/, part of the Department of Transport.

NATIONAL EXHIBITIONS

Disability equipment suppliers attend national exhibitions to demonstrate their equipment to both professionals working in the disability field and to disabled people. Annual events include the Mobility Roadshow and the Independent Living Exhibition.

HOME DEMONSTRATIONS

Some manufacturers of powered wheelchairs provide a home demonstration service, which allows users to try out the vehicle in their home environment. Before you invite a sales representative into your home, you may prefer to buy from a company that belongs to a trade association such as the British Healthcare Trades Association (see useful addresses). The association has established a Registration Scheme, open to BHTA members and non-members, which lays down a Code of Conduct and minimum professional standards.

A home visit is always useful, before a final decision to buy is made. Check that:

• the vehicle can be manoeuvred over thresholds, through doorways and over terrain where you are likely to be using it;

• make sure you sit in the wheelchair and drive it - do not allow the sales representative alone to take control;

• have a third impartial person with you to give advice and offer another opinion.
Although you hope there will be no need to question the integrity of the sales representative, a minority may try to take advantage of your vulnerability. Take your time over making any decision to buy. Do not buy from anyone exerting pressure on you to buy their product. You must give yourself an opportunity to think things through independently.

BEFORE YOU COMMIT TO BUYING

Check the following:

• What is the delivery time?
• Will the powered wheelchair arrive ready assembled?
• What guarantee is available?
• What after-care service is offered?
• How much is the company’s call out charge?
• Will spare parts be brought to the home?
• If the powered wheelchair has to be taken away for repairs, will a loan vehicle be offered?
• Does the manufacturer offer an insurance scheme?
• If the same vehicle can be supplied direct from the manufacturer or from other retailers, how do prices compare?

You must be certain that:

• you have the necessary skills to handle a powered wheelchair;
• that the wheelchair is capable of doing what you require of it;
• your home environment can accommodate your wheelchair.
• Does the wheelchair feel secure and fully support the user

As you will see choosing a powered wheelchair is not a straight forward decision especially if you have no previous experience in this area. We strongly suggest that you talk to people experienced in this field and take some time to try out the various options. One such Midlands based company is Magbility, based just South of Birmingham, with many years experience in providing solutions for the elderly and infirm. You can see more details at http://www.services-professional.co.uk/Retailer-Magbility.html

Submitted by:

John Fowler

John Fowler trained as a Mathematician and has worked in the IT industry for over 30 years, much of the time in sales related functions. He now spends his time between being a partner in SEO Gurus and as a sales and management trainer for ICT companies. John can be contacted via http://www.seogurus.co.uk




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