Here’s something they don’t specifically tell you when you’re shopping for your first wheelchair: They’re not very comfortable. Sure, you can spend enough money to make them (reasonably) comfortable, but it’s probably not an understatement to say that some 90% of the wheelchairs available on the market today won’t win any awards on the comfort front.
That may sound a little crazy at first read because people with mobility issues tend to need to be in their chairs for several hours a day. If your mobility issue is quite serious, you may be confined to one 24/7. Given that, comfort really matters.
Unfortunately, function matters more, and the wheelchair’s main purpose is to help you get from Point A to Point B. It’s not that comfort doesn’t matter. It’s just that it can’t be placed ahead of the chair’s primary purpose (which is the same reason that there aren’t very many great-looking wheelchairs -form doesn’t matter nearly as much as function!)
The good news, though, is that there are steps you can take when shopping for a wheelchair that will help make it more comfortable.
In this article, we’ll go over the various aspects of wheelchair seating to help ensure that your wheelchair is as comfortable as it can be. Let’s take a closer look:
Wheelchair Seating Types
The first thing to do when talking about this topic is to break wheelchairs broadly into two groups:
Manual and electric wheelchairs on one side, and power chairs and scooters on the other.
In the world of wheelchairs, whether your arms or a motor provide the means of locomotion, the “chair” part of the device is woven into the fabric of the whole.
In the case of power chairs and scooters, what you see is essentially some type of chair being bolted on or otherwise attached to a wheeled, motorized platform. You’re going to see more variation in seat types when you look at power chairs and scooters.
Although variations do exist in the power chair/scooter segment of the market, one that stands above all the rest is the Captain’s Seat. It is probably the most common type of seat for these sorts of mobility aids, and it’s certainly the most sought after. Here are the details:
The Captain’s Seat
The reason this type of seating is so sought after is that it provides an all-in-one solution, allowing users to adjust nearly every dimension of the seating experience, including, but not limited to:
- Changing the angle of the seat
- Changing the angle of the back
- Altering the seat depth
- Adding or increasing lumbar support
However, one thing you should be aware of is that not all Captain’s seats are exactly the same. This is definitely a case of “you get what you pay for.” Some companies offer more features than others, and naturally, the more features a Captain’s Seat has on offer and the more comfortable it is, the more expensive the machine will be.
A fair number of models offer seating that doesn’t quite rise to the level of a Captain’s Seat. Most of these can best be described as “task chairs” mounted to the power chair/scooter frame, though in some low-cost travel-friendly models, what you’ll find is something that’s more akin to a folding fishing chair.
In a very few cases, you’ll see lightweight travel-friendly models with something that resembles a wider-than-usual bicycle seat, and a few models offer what are essentially motorcycle seats. These are the exceptions rather than the rule.
You can certainly find them. But, unless you’re specifically buying for portability, you’ll almost always be better served by spending a bit extra and getting a model that offers a robust Captain’s Seat.
Since there’s not a huge range in terms of the types of wheelchair seating, any conversation on this topic naturally turns next to the various dimensions involved in the construction of the seat, which we can broadly define as different, or at the very least, wheelchair seating elements. We’ll have a look at those next!
Considerations For Wheelchair Seats (Regardless of Type)
No matter what style or type of seat your mobility aid has, there are a few measurements you’ll absolutely want to take, both of yourself and the seat in question, to be sure that the two of you are a good fit. Although wheelchairs aren’t designed with comfort in mind, buying one that fits you like a glove goes a long way toward increasing comfort. Here are the major elements that feed into that:
Wheelchair Seat Width
Seat width really matters when finding the right chair or scooter for you. Don’t be fooled into thinking that bigger is better because, in this case, it definitely isn’t.
Ideally, you want the seat for your chair to be only marginally wider than your hips, such that your hips brush against both sides. If the seat is wider than this, it can lead to poor posture as you lean to one side or the other, which will lead to increased discomfort.
The simplest and easiest way to get an accurate read on how wide of a seat you need is to sit down somewhere and place a book on either side of you, lightly touching your hips. Then get up and measure the distance between the two books, measured from where they were touching your hips. There’s your answer!
Seat width can also impact the overall usability of your chair.
As seat width increases, so too does the overall width of your chair. You’ll also need to keep in mind the width of doorways inside your home that you’ll want and need to navigate through. If the chair you ultimately get will barely squeeze through, then it’s going to be frustrating to use, so bear it in mind. It would be frustrating in the extreme to struggle to get your chair into the bathroom, for example.
Seat depth doesn’t get as much attention as seat width, but it’s every bit as important. It can also be a bit tricky to get seat depth right, but it’s well worth the effort to do so. Here’s why:
If the seat isn’t deep enough, your legs will hang over the edge of the seat, which places unnecessary pressure on your tailbone and causes increasing discomfort over time. On top of that, a seat that’s just not deep enough won’t provide sufficient support in terms of the chair as a whole, which will lead to increased instability.
If the seat depth is too deep, the seat will pull your hips forward and make you wind up slouching, which will also lead to increasing discomfort over time. Excessive seat depth will also negatively impact performance, leaving you with a chair that’s less agile on the whole and harder to maneuver in.
A handful of wheelchairs offer seats with variable depths, just like office chairs do, but you’ll pay a hefty premium for this feature. It’s worth mentioning, though, that seat depth can be modified slightly depending on the type of backrest your chair utilizes. Even better, backrests on most models can be swapped out, giving you at least a little wiggle room on that front.
Armrest Height & Width (If Applicable)
Armrest width is mostly a function of seat width, but the placement of the armrests can moderately impact it, as can the width of the surface area of the tops of the armrests.
Too wide, and you won’t be able to rest both arms on the armrests, which will see you gravitate to one side of the seat or the other.
Too narrow, you will be generally uncomfortable and perhaps not even able to actually sit in the chair.
It should be noted that a fair percentage of power chairs and scooters don’t have armrests. Chairs without them are certainly still usable, but you’re more likely to suffer fatigue if you have to sit in the chair for prolonged periods.
It’s also worth mentioning that a few models (mostly at the high end) have armrests that can be both height and width adjustable.
Beyond ensuring that you can rest both of your arms comfortably on the armrests when they’re present, there’s no “right” answer here. It comes down to what’s most comfortable for you, but generally speaking, having more options where height and width are concerned is better.
Seat angle is the measure of the front to back slope of your wheelchair or scooter’s seat, if any. Invariably, if a wheelchair’s seat has an angle, it will be higher in the front and lower in the back.
Do not confuse this with tilt seating. Some chairs offer a tilt feature allowing you to shift the entire seat carriage, changing its angle. Seat angle is a static feature available on many (but certainly not all) wheelchairs or scooters.
Wheelchairs that offer angled seating provide greater stability and security because you’re just less likely to slide out, especially when you come to a sudden stop.
There is one (potential) downside, however. As the angle of the seat increases, it will invariably increase tension on your spine, which can lead to posture issues and pain if you spend significant amounts of time in the chair. All that to say that while some seat angle is a good thing, too much can begin to work against you.
Seat to Floor Height
Many chairs offer at least some variation here. Even manual wheelchairs are often “Hemi Height,” meaning that they’ve got a dual axel and can be set to your choice of two different seat heights, giving you at least some level of customization.
Powerchairs and scooters with Captain’s Seats usually have a greater range of adjustability. The simplest way to determine what height works best for you is to find a chair in your home that you’re comfortable sitting and working in, measure that chair’s height, then get a wheelchair that is pretty close to that chair’s height.
Wheelchair Seat Backrest
Most wheelchairs don’t have a lot to offer on this front. Manual wheelchairs tend to feature a simple sling made of nylon or vinyl, which means there’s nothing in the way of lumbar support. In turn, that makes these chairs increasingly uncomfortable when used for longer periods.
Some models do a bit better and offer seatbacks that allow the tension to be adjusted, giving you at least some level of support. A few (mostly models at the top end) offer modular designs that allow you to swap in molded seatbacks or other variations to give you exactly the level of support you want or need.
Powerchairs and scooters that have Captain’s Seats are a bit better on this front, as many of these seats offer the same kind of lumbar support that you find in high-quality office chairs.
Wheelchair Seat Cushions
Given what we said at the start that wheelchairs aren’t exactly built for comfort, wheelchair cushions are among the most common accessories people buy. They’re relatively inexpensive and can enhance your chair’s level of comfort tremendously. Best of all, there is a staggering range of wheelchair seat cushion sizes available. Regardless of your seat’s dimensions, you can find something that will work.
Seat cushions for wheelchairs are offered in a wide range of materials, so you can enhance your chair’s comfort to pretty much any level you desire.
Granted that some cushioning materials are better than others, and you get what you pay for (the more comfortable materials also tend to be more expensive), but that’s actually a good thing. It means that no matter what your budget is, there’s something for everyone. Here’s a quick overview of the options available:
The good thing about foam seat pads is the fact that they’re ubiquitous. Offered by dozens of companies, you can find them in all shapes and sizes and upholstered in just about every type of material you can imagine.
Foam cushions tend to be the least expensive option, though you can find some molded cold-cured and other foam cushions designed by therapists that will run a bit more.
Foam’s two big advantages are that it’s lightweight and inexpensive. If you’re on a budget and looking for a quick and easy way to add comfort to your existing chair, a simple foam cushion will get the job done without severely denting your budget.
Unfortunately, there are downsides as well. Foam loses its shape over time and breaks down, so you’ll need to replace this type of seat cushion relatively more often than you will if you get some other type of padding.
Price range: $40-$150 for off-the-shelf; $400+ for custom molds.
Air cushions are exactly what they sound like. If you’ve ever spent the night sleeping on an air mattress or used an air floatation device in a swimming pool, you get the idea. Your body weight is supported by a cushion of air.
The good news is that air cushions distribute your weight evenly, so there’s no risk of painful pressure points when sitting on a cushion of air. In addition to that, these types of cushions can be delightfully comfortable, but there’s a catch:
It can be tricky to find the optimal amount of air pressure. Too much pressure risks popping the bladder holding the air or creates an uncomfortably firm seating experience. Too little pressure and the cushion doesn’t provide any support or comfort at all, which means you spent money for nothing.
Then there’s the issue that air cushions tend to be somewhat more fragile than other types of cushioning. One hole and the cushion deflates.
There is a partial workaround to the issue if you spend extra to get a cushion designed with multiple “cells” of air pockets, but those tend to be more expensive.
Further, no matter how well made they are, air bladders will eventually leak, meaning you’ll have to regularly reinflate to optimal pressure levels to maintain comfort. For some people, they’re just too high maintenance to be worthwhile.
Price range: $150-$450.
Gel cushions are actually a combination solution. Cells are filled with pockets of gel, which collectively rest atop a conventional block foam base. There are good and bad aspects to this approach.
First, gel cushions are delightfully comfortable, with the gel used having a similar consistency of body tissue. So, it feels a bit like sitting on someone’s lap.
Second, brand new gel cushions offer an experience similar to sitting on pockets of air in that your weight gets evenly distributed.
Having said that, the longer you own and use a gel cushion, the less effective it will become because the gel will slowly deform the cells at the bottom when you sit on it, providing a decreasing level of comfort and support.
Also, the cells suffer the same limitation as air bladders and are distressingly easy to puncture. Finally, gel cushions are heavy and will add significantly to the overall weight of your chair. If you’re using a power chair, that might not be bad. But if you’re in a manual design, then your arms are going to bear the brunt of moving that extra weight around. Not good.
Price range: $150-$450.
It is constructed like the honeycomb you find in a beehive. This style of cushioning seeks to offer all the advantages of air cushions with none of the disadvantages.
They don’t weigh much, are machine washable, and you don’t have to worry about puncturing them.
Having said that, many users find them to be too firm to be comfortable, and there’s no way you can adjust the firmness. You either like it or live with it, or you don’t use it.
The other problem is that honeycomb cushions tend to be fairly pricey. So if you buy one and decide you don’t like it, you’re out a hefty chunk of money and you still have a cushioning problem.
One thing that’s worth mentioning, though, is this: Honeycomb cushions are still fairly new, so there will undoubtedly be improvements and refinements which may serve to mitigate the weak points of this style of cushioning.
Price range: $175-$400.
The bottom line is that the right cushion can provide a tremendous level of added comfort, help you sit more comfortably, and even prevent pressure sores. Seat cushions need not meet all of that criterion for every user, though.
If you only use your chair occasionally, say, for a quick trip to the store, you won’t have the same needs as a person who spends nearly all day, every day confined to their powerchair. In light of that fact, it’s important to have an honest conversation with yourself about your specific needs and make a purchase decision based on those needs.
Final Thoughts on Wheelchair Seating
As you can see then, there’s a lot more to think about where wheelchair seating is concerned than first meets the eye. That means that you, as a prospective buyer, have a lot to think about. At a bare minimum, you’ll need to take a few key measurements and whenever possible, try each chair you’re considering before you buy. Actually, spending time in the mobility aid you’re considering is the best way to see how good a fit it will ultimately be for you.