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A wheelchair is a wheeled mobility device in which the user sits. The device is propelled either manually (by pushing the wheels with the hands) or via various automated systems. Wheelchairs are used by people for whom walking is difficult or impossible due to illness(mental or physical) , injury, , or disability. People with both sitting and walking disability often need to use a wheelbench. The earliest record of the wheelchair in England dates from the 1670s [Oxford English Dictionary, (2nd Ed.), 1989, Vol. XX., p. 203.], and in continental Europe this technology dates back to the German Renaissance.


History of the wheelchair

  There have been many attempts to connect furniture to wheels, dating back to 530 BCE when the Greeks placed wheels on a bed, creating the first known wheeled furniture. By 525 CE, the Chinese had placed wheels on chairs. However the first recognisable 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, it was not self propelled, and perhaps had a closer resemblance to a highchair than a wheelchair of today.

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 in 1881, and wire spoked wheels replacing wooden ones in 1900.

The 20th century saw a rapid development in wheelchairs, from the first motorised wheels in 1918, to the first folding wheelchair, built in 1933 by Herbert B. Everest, paralysed in 1919 in a mining accident, and his friend Harry C. Jennings Sr., a mechanical engineer. By the mid 1970s Errol Markheim at Sopur in Germany, Jeff Minnebraker at Quadra in California, and Rainier Kuschall in Europe, had all created lightweight, aluminum, highly-adjustable chairs.

The most recent two decades have seen the progress in the modern wheelchair accelerate. They are lighter and perform better than ever before. There are now many possibilities available to improve the ride, from suspension systems which help to remove vibrations and jolts, to ultra-light weight frames which enable better performance, to special designs for every individualised need and taste.

Types of wheelchair

  A basic standard manual wheelchair incorporates a seat and back, two small front (caster) wheels and two large wheels, one on each side, and a foot rest.

Wheelchairs are often variations on this basic design, but there are many types of wheelchairs, and they are often highly customised for the individual user's needs. The seat size (width and depth), seat-to-floor height, footrests/leg rests, front caster outriggers, adjustable backrests, controls, and many other features can be customized on, or added to, many basic models, while some users, often those with specialised needs, may have wheelchairs custom-built.

Various optional accessories are available, such as anti-tip bars or wheels, safety belts, adjustable backrests, tilt and/or recline features, extra support for limbs or neck, mounts or carrying devices for crutches, walkers or oxygen tanks, drink holders, and clothing protectors.

Experiments have also been made with unusual variant wheels, like the omniwheel or the mecanum wheel. These allow more directional movement options.

The electric wheelchair shown on the right is fitted with Mecanum wheels (sometimes known as Ilon wheels) which give it complete freedom of movement. It can be driven forwards, backwards, sideways, and diagonally, and also turned round on the spot or turned around while moving, all operated from a simple joystick.

Manual wheelchairs

Manual wheelchairs are those that require human power to move them. There are three types of manual wheelchair: self-propelled, attendant-propelled, and wheelbase. Many manual wheelchairs can be folded for storage or placement into a vehicle, although modern wheelchairs are just as likely to be rigid framed.

Manual or self-propelled wheelchairs are propelled by the occupant, usually by using large rear wheels, from 20-26 inches in average diameter, and resembling those of bicycle wheels. The user moves the chair by pushing on the handrims, which are made of circular tubing attached to the outside of the large wheels. The handrims have a diameter that is slightly less than that of the rear wheels. Skilled users can control speed and turning and often learn to balance the chair on its rear wheels - do a "wheelie". The wheelie is not just for show - a rider that can control the chair in this manner can climb and descend curbs and move over small obstacles.

One-arm drive enables a user to guide and propel a wheelchair from one side. Two handrims, one smaller than the other, are located on one side of the chair, left or right. On most models the outer, or smaller rim, is connected to the opposite wheel by a folding axle. When both handrims are grasped together, the chair may be propelled forward or backward in a straight line. When either handrim is moved independently, the chair will turn left or right in response to the handrim used. Another alternative is a lever-drive chair that propels the chair forwards by using a lever that is pumped back and forth. Some chairs are also configured to allow the occupant to propel using one or both feet instead of using the rims.

Attendant-propelled chairs are designed to be propelled by an attendant using the handles, and thus the back wheels are rimless and often smaller. These chairs are often used as 'transfer chairs' to move a patient when a better alternative is unavailable, possibly within a hospital, as a temporary option, or in areas where a user's standard chair is unavailable. These chairs are commonly seen in airports. Special airplane transfer chairs are available on most airlines, designed to fit narrow airplane aisles and transfer a wheelchair-using passenger to and from their seat on the plane.

Wheelbase chairs are wheeled platforms with specially-molded seating systems interfaced with them for users with a more complicated posture. A molded seating system involves taking a cast of a person's best achievable seated position and the either carving the shape from memory foam or forming a plastic mesh around it. This seat is then covered, framed, and attached to a wheelbase.

Light weight and high cost are related in the manual wheelchairs market. At the low-cost end, heavy, tubular steel chairs with sling seats and little adaptability dominate. Users may be temporarily disabled, or using such a chair as a loaner, or simply unable to afford better. Heavy unmodified manual chairs are common as "loaners" at large facilities such as airports, amusement parks and shopping centers. In a higher price range, and more commonly used by persons with long-term disabilities, are major manufacturer lightweight chairs with more options. The high end of the market contains ultra-light models, fancy seating options and accessories, all-terrain features, and so forth.

Electric Powered Wheelchairs

Three general styles of electric powered chairs (EPWs) exist: rear, center, front wheel driven or four wheel driven. Each style has particular handling characteristics. EPWs are also divided by seat type; some models resemble manual chairs, with a sling-style seat and frame, whereas others have 'captain's chair' seating like that of an automobile. EPWs run the gamut from small and portable models, which can be folded or disassembled, to very large and heavy full-featured chairs (these are often called 'rehab' chairs).

EPWs may be designed specifically for indoor use, outdoor use, or both. They are generally prescribed for persons who have difficulty using a manual chair due to arm, hand, shoulder or more general disabling conditions, and do not have the leg strength to propel a manual chair with their feet. A person with full function of the arms and upper torso will generally be prescribed a manual chair, or find that their insurance will not cover an EPW.

The user typically controls speed and direction by operating a joystick on a controller. Many other input devices can be used if the user lacks coordination or the use of the hands or fingers, such as chin controls and puff/sip scanners for those with C2-3 spinal cord lesions or head injuries (the user blows into a tube located near the mouth, which powers the movement of the chair). This controller is the most delicate and usually the most expensive part of the chair. EPWs can offer various powered functions such as tilt, recline, leg elevation, seat elevation, and others useful or necessary to health and function.

EPWs use electric motors to move the wheels. They are usually powered by 4 or 5 amp deep-cycle rechargeable batteries, similar to those used to power outboard boat engines. These are available in wet or dry options; currently dry cell batteries are more popular[citation needed]. Many EPWs carry an on-board charger which can be plugged into a standard wall outlet; older or more portable models may have a separate charger unit.

Other wheelchair variants

A standing wheelchair is one that supports the user in a nearly standing position. They can be used as both a wheelchair and a standing frame, allowing the user to sit or stand in the wheelchair as they wish. They often go from sitting to standing with a hydraulic pump or electric-powered assist.

A mobility scooter (see full article) is a motorized assist device similar to an EPW, but with a steering 'tiller' or bar instead of the joystick, and fewer medical support options. Mobility scooters are available without a prescription in some markets, and range from large, powerful models to lightweight folding ones intended for travel. There are companies that do not take insurance and only take credit card payment from their customers. In exchange they offer a much lower price. One of these companies is Scooter Link. - Scooter Link and companies like Scooter Link offer lower prices for the uninsured. A bariatric wheelchair is one designed to support larger weights; most standard chairs are designed to support no more than 250 lbs. on average.

Pediatric wheelchairs are another available subset of wheelchairs.

Sport wheelchairs

  Disabled athletes use streamlined sport wheelchairs for disabled sports that require speed and agility, such as basketball, rugby, tennis and racing. Each wheelchair sport tends to use specific types of wheelchairs, and these no longer look like their everyday cousins. They are usually non-folding (in order to increase solidity), with a pronounced angle for the wheels (which provides stability during a sharp turn) and made of composite, lightweight materials. Sport wheelchairs are not generally for everyday use, and are often a 'second' chair specifically for sport use, although some users prefer the sport options for everyday.

Beach wheelchairs

This wheelchair allow users to enter the water and provide a better mobility in the sand. There are lots of different models available. In many countries in Europe where the Accessible Tourism is well set, many beaches are wheelchair accessible and provide this kind of wheelchairs to clients free of charge.

Recent developments

Recent technological advances are slowly improving wheelchair and EPW technology. Some wheelchairs, such as the iBOT, incorporate gyroscopic technology and other advances, enabling the chair to balance and run on only two of its four wheels on some surfaces, thus raising the user to a height comparable to a standing person. They can also incorporate stair-climbing and four-wheel-drive feature motorized assists for hand-powered chairs are becoming more available and advanced.

Three-wheeled wheelchairs are wheelchairs with the least wheels and are found in EPW technology.

Building access

    Adapting the built environment to make it more accessible to wheelchair users is one of the key campaigns of disability rights movements and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The most important principle is Universal design - that all people regardless of disability are entitled to equal access to all parts of society like public transportation and buildings. A wheelchair user is less disabled in an environment without stairs.

Sometimes it is necessary to add structures like ramps or elevators in order to permit people in wheelchairs (and those using crutches, canes, walkers and so forth, or those with unsupported walking disabilities) to use a particular building. Other important adaptations are powered doors; lowered fixtures such as sinks and water fountains; and toilets with adequate space and grab bars to allow the person to maneuver himself or herself out of the wheelchair onto the fixture. In the United States, most new construction for public use must be built to ADA standards of accessibility.

The construction of low floor trams and buses is being encouraged, whereas the use of paternosters in public buildings without any alternative method of transportation has been criticized due to the lack of access for wheelchair users. Modern street furniture design now incorporates better accessibility for people with disabilities.

Notable users


  • Durham, Judith, singer


  • Fletcher, Steven, Member of Parliament
  • Hansen, Rick, athlete
  • Onley, David, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario
  • Sullivan, Sam, mayor of Vancouver
  • Thibault, Lise, former Lieutenant Governor of Quebec


  • Potměšil, Jan, actor


  • Couthon, Georges, follower of Robespierre


  • Schäuble, Wolfgang, Minister of the Interior


  • Achebe, Chinua, writer


  • Yassin, Ahmed, founder of Hamas


  • Lenin, Vladimir, leader of the Bolshevik party, first premier of the Soviet Union


  • Regazzoni, Clay, former Formula One driver and disability activist

United Kingdom

  • Balfour, Morag, co-chair Scottish Socialist Party
  • Fernandez, Julie, actress
  • Flanders, Michael, songwriter, actor and performer
  • Gardner, Frank, journalist
  • Hawking, Stephen, theoretical astrophysicist
  • Williams, Frank, founder and manager of the WilliamsF1 Formula One racing team

United States

  • Barrymore, Lionel, actor
  • Cleland, Max, former US Senator
  • Flynt, Larry, publisher
  • Fotheringham, Aaron, wheelchair acrobat
  • Hockenberry, John, journalist
  • Kovic, Ron, Vietnam veteran and peace activist
  • Langevin, Jim, Congressman
  • Lynch, Eric, leader of The Wack Pack
  • Rainey, Wayne, former Grand Prix motorcycle World Champion
  • Reeve, Christopher, former movie actor
  • Roberts, Ed, disability activist
  • Roosevelt, Franklin, 32nd President of the United States
  • Schappell, George, folk singer
  • Tholkes, Alan, inventor of the EasyStand standing frame
  • Wallace, George, former Governor of Alabama
  • Dart, Justin Whitlock, Jr., disability activist
  • Johnny Cash,Singer/Songwriter/Guitar Player. Was seen not long before his death in 2003, in his final concerts he was in a wheelchair the whole time
  • Vic Chesnutt, musician.



  • Colin Craven from The Secret Garden, mistakenly thought to have a hunchback all his life, never walked on his own before he goes out to see his mother's garden, and uses a wheelchair until his legs get strong enough to walk.
  • Jimmy Brooks and Nadia from Degrassi: The Next Generation
  • Guy Caballero, Joe Flaherty's SCTV character used a wheelchair, to try and gain sympathy around the network he owned.
  • Kevin Girardi played by Jason Ritter in the television series Joan of Arcadia.
  • Maya Goldberg from Degrassi Junior High.
  • Barbara Gordon aka Oracle, formerly Batgirl, Internet information broker
  • Grigotte from 5, Rue Sésame, the French adaptation of Sesame Street
  • Robert T. Ironside from Ironside
  • Katie from Sesame Park, the Canadian adaptation of Sesame Street
  • John Locke on the television series Lost is no longer paraplegic, after the jet he was on crashes on a mysterious island.
  • Reilly O'Reilly in "John Callaghan's Quads": the main character in a satircal cartoon about a quadriplegic man and his friends.
  • Pelswick, star of an animated series by the same name
  • Andy Pipkin from Little Britain, although he does not strictly require a wheelchair.
  • Brian Potter from Phoenix Nights
  • Lisa Randolph from Carol Ellis's novel The Body.
  • Lincoln Rhyme from Jeffery Deaver's novel (and movie) The Bone Collector.
  • Stevie from Malcolm in the Middle
  • Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers' title character in the 1964 comedy film of the same name.
  • Joe Swanson, from Family Guy
  • Timmy, from South Park
  • Professor Charles Xavier aka Professor X, founder and leader of the X-Men
  • I'm with stupid is a British TV comedy with much of the cast in wheelchairs.
  • Bentley the Turtle, a character from the Sly Cooper series.
  • B.Max from RAGGS Kids Club Band
  • Augustus Hill from Oz
  • Mr. Ng, character from the postcyberpunk novel Snow Crash
  • Chris Theodorakis, character from Ellen Raskin's novel, The Westing Game.

See also

  • Wheelchair (hydrogen)
  • Cart
  • Hobcart
  • International Symbol of Accessibility
  • List of wheelchair organizations
  • Stairlift
  • Wagon
  • Accessible Tourism
  • Extremity Games
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Wheelchair". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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