Wheelchair Shopping

Shopping for a wheelchair is not like buying a new car.

I think my wife and I had psyched ourselves up about wheelchair shopping. Personally, I expected we would walk into a store and find rows of wheelchairs all shined up and waiting for a test spin around the room. It wasn’t to be.

My wife’s neurologist gave her prescriptions for a wheelchair and hand controls for her minivan following the last EMG performed a couple of weeks ago. We’ve both searched the Internet since then looking for all we can find about wheelchairs and hand controls. While buying a wheelchair is going to be an easier process than getting hand controls and a new drivers license, today was a disappointment.

The first store we visited had none out for display. A friendly lady went into a back room and returned pushing a flat black, 53 pound, folding behemoth. When asked about a lighter chair, she replied, “this is the lightest we carry.” She referred us to another medical supply store. We hopped in the minivan and found it.

The lady behind the desk in the second store seemed a little grumpy about answering questions until she learned my wife had a prescription for the wheelchair. Dollar signs flashed in her eyes. She immediately asked for our insurance information.

Instead of providing it, my wife explained we were shopping and asked if she could actually see some chairs. The desk-lady then asked a man behind the counter to go get one out of the back. He, too, returned with a black behemoth.

“It’s the smallest chair we have except for transport chairs,” he offered.

He explained that transport chairs must be pushed. They aren’t self-propelled. “But they are lighter,” he explained.

We could not find a wheelchair store designed for individual consumers. The stores cater to the hospital/nursing home market. The 50 pound chairs used in hospitals and nursing homes are solid and long-lasting, but they’re just too big for my wife to manage by herself.

We’re looking for what the industry calls an “ultra lightweight” folding model that will weigh about 20 pounds.  Also, a friend of mine who works as a Director of Nursing shared with me that the biggest factor in how comfortable a wheelchair is for a passenger is determined by the quality of the seat cushion. Another friend recommends solid tires instead of air-filled because the solid tires roll more easily.

Unless we get lucky, I imagine we’ll order the chair from an online dealer and cross our fingers that it will be just right for my wife. Unfortunately, most of the online dealers refuse returns except for those damaged in shipping.

Here’s my dream wheelchair shopping experience, (though I’m sure the market for personal wheelchairs is too small for this to work out for the dealer): it would be great to find a wheelchair store that has 50 or 60 different models on the floor so one can try them out.

I’d like to see how easily wheelchair A folds and unfolds, how rough wheelchair C rides compared to wheelchair B. Does wheelchair D look better in the black finish or in fire engine red? Can I get replacement parts for wheelchair E or must I send it in for repairs? What about accessories? “Can we get that model with detachable handles?” You get the idea.

Wheelchair shopping is not at all like I expected.

Caregiver Tip: Avoid psyching yourself up when you go shopping for a wheelchair. You’ll be disappointed. It’s not like buying a new car.


  1. Cara Jean Wahlers said:

    Thank you so much for making that comparison. I’m trying to help my boyfriend shop for a wheelchair right now and I’m completely horrified by the lack of help available. This is quite possibly the most frustrating thing I’ve ever tried to do.

    May 3, 2011
  2. Wani said:

    Hi. I can’t figure out when you posted this, but you probably found a wheelchair by now. But I’m gonna go ahead and let you or any other reader know that occupational therapists are the experts in wheelchair. The wheelchair companies may make recommendations like crazy but nothing like a good occupational therapist. They will look at the client’s activities and functions and make the recommendation for every part of the chair. An OT will even write you a letter of medical necessity for your insurance company to cover the expense of the chair. Hope this helps someone!
    God bless!

    November 7, 2011
  3. Cara Jean Wahlers said:

    Hi there! We did finally get the wheelchair… it took 11 weeks from the time the salesman measured him to the time he got the chair. But boy, it sure is great and taking ramps sure got a little safer. Well, a little… ;)

    Thanks so much for all of your help and advice.

    November 7, 2011

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