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Custom wheelchairs: The trend from functionality to individuality

by Dr. Gene Emmer and Galina Soldatenko
Med Services Europe

Wheelchairs have been around for hundreds of years, but early wheelchairs were intended only to help a people with disabilities move from point A to point B. As society progressed and became more inclusive, the role of the wheelchair began to change as well. Wheelchairs are now considered not only a means of transportation but also as a way to allow users to express their individuality. There are a wide choice of custom-made high quality ultra-light high-performance wheelchairs available as well as accessories that enable people to individualize their look and style. The move from functionality to individuality is discussed in this article.

History of wheelchairs

King Phillip's wheelchair 1595

There were many attempts to connect furniture to wheels dating back to the time of Christ. But perhaps the first wheelchair was invented for King Phillip II of Spain. A drawing of the King dated 1595 shows him in a chair with wheels, armrests and footrests. However, he needed assistance to propel it and the chair resembled a modern baby's high chair more than a wheelchair of today. In 1665 one of the first self-propelled vehicles was invented by Stephan Farfler. But it looked more like a present day hand-bike than a wheelchair, as it was propelled by hand cranks attached to the front wheel.

The modern wheelchair began to take shape in the late 19th century to early 20th century with the advent of push rims for self-propulsion and slings for seat and back rests. The 20th century saw a rapid development in wheelchairs, from the first motorized wheelchair, to the first folding wheelchair, to lightweight and sports wheelchairs.

The last two decades have seen progress in the modern wheelchair accelerate. Wheelchairs are lighter and perform better than ever before. There are now many possibilities available to improve the ride, from suspension systems that help to remove vibrations and jolts, to ultra-light weight frames which enable better performance, to special designs for every individualized need and taste. The recent trend is towards customization. Customized wheelchairs are now being requested for many reasons:

Customization of wheelchairs

Unique designs

Wheelchair designed for a mother who is a tripple amputee (decribed below)

Customization of wheelchairs to fit the individual needs of the user can include simple modifications to standard designs or creating an entirely unique design. Imagine a mother who is a triple amputee. How will she move herself and her baby? Custom built wheelchairs can now be designed to help her. For example a user with an amputated arm can use a special wheel which has dual hand rims to allow both wheels to be controlled with one hand. The wheelchair can also be modified so that it is stretched in front, allowing the child seat to be attached to the wheelchair in front of the mother. Other examples may include designing extra long or extra short wheelchairs for very tall or small users or reinforced wheelchairs for heavy users or specialized devices for users that have limited motor control or functions. Customized wheelchairs are now being regularly designed to accommodate nearly every special need.

Performance wheelchairs

Sonja Peters - wheelchair tennis champion

Individualizing wheelchairs for performance is often required for athletes or very active users. This can include creating special wheelchairs for dance, with the ideal center of gravity which helps the user to perform spins and complicated maneuvers with ease. Dancers with limited motor control can have special handles created which allow their able bodied partners to assist them in their turns or maneuvers. Tennis players can have special requirements like reverse tilt seating position where the back of the seat is higher than the front, in order to give increased power in the arm and body movements. Rugby players need specially designed wheelchairs that can take a very hard hit without damaging the wheelchair or the occupant.

Customization for performance is not only for athletes, it can also improve the comfort for everyday users. Frames can be custom designed to fit the individual's body like a glove. Also, customized wheelchairs are lighter and usually perform better. Most mass produced wheelchairs are made by using adjustable brackets to hold the frame together so that a prefabricated wheelchair can be adjusted to fit different individual's sizes and requirements. However, these brackets create weight. Customized wheelchairs are made to fit the individual that they are created for. Instead of using adjustable brackets, the wheelchair parts are welded together. This means that the wheelchair is not at all adjustable, so it must be designed correctly by an experienced professional. However, since welds are lighter than brackets, customized wheelchairs are considerably lighter. They also usually perform better since the energy from the push may be lost in small movement within the brackets.

Personalized wheelchairs

Collage of wheelchairs with individualized style

Customization can also individualize the look and style. Wheelchairs can be painted with special colors or designs, upholstery can be made to order, lighter casters, funky spoke guards with individualized patterns and bling-bling wheels with rotating spinners give the wheelchair a very unique look. Accessories can be purchased to complete the look. Leather, zip-on, frame covers can give an elegant style and bags made from material to match the upholstery can complete the look.

Mobility and independence

Advances in assistive technology, such as the recent progress in wheelchair design make it easier for people with disabilities to integrate into society. But even with new technology, wheelchair users would not be able to integrate without public access and funding to purchase the new technology. The best wheelchair in the world would not help people with a disability to move about if society did not provide ramps, special doors and other infrastructure to enable access to public spaces, transportation, sidewalks and roads. And while in some countries laws have been created and public funds have been set aside to help people with disabilities integrate, in many other countries access is not yet available and wheelchair users are left at home. In such countries wheelchair individualization is still a thing of the future. Assistive technology can improve the wheelchair but it takes a progressive society to improve the surrounding world.

About the authors

Dr. Gene Emmer and Galina Soldatenko manage Med Services Europe: Med Services Europe is based in Zurich, Switzerland and are the European representative for Colours Wheelchairs, a US manufacturer of ultra lightweight and customized wheelchairs Colours N Motion. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers of disability products can contact Med Services Europe or New Disability for more information or phone +41764249963

Published: March 2006

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