Presented by Users First Alliance
We are always asked about the best way to get a new wheelchair.
t’s a huge decision requiring you to consider a myriad of variables. A rash choice could leave you with challenges with funding, seating that doesn’t suit or a chair that doesn’t meet your needs which you are stuck with until your insurance will green light a replacement.
In an effort to help you choose wisely and carefully, we’ve enlisted the aid of Ann Eubank, MSSW, OTR/L, ATP, executive director of Users First Alliance. The Alliance seeks to ensure appropriate access to seating and mobility equipment by empowering wheelchair users, clinicians and providers with education and information resources that inspire action and motivate change.
When you arrive at the Atlanta Abilities Expo in the market for a new mobility device, stop by the Users First Alliance booth (#209) first. A representative will be available all day for each day of the event to personally meet with you. They will also provide you with a helpful worksheet to ensure that, not only do you meet all of the exhibitors on the show floor who have seating and mobility equipment for you to see, you are asking the right questions to help you arrive at your final decision.
Step 1: Get into the zone
This is something you can start working on now before you come to the show. To help you get into the proper wheelchair-hunting mindset, consider the following key points:
- The process will be unique because your needs are unique.
- Putting in the time to prepare will help a lot.
- Consider the pros and cons of every option presented.
- Shop for function and service (not brand).
- Sometimes you’ll need to push and advocate for what you want.
Then, dig deeper.
Spend time considering your current seating system, and what you want in your next system. Take notes. Write down anything that comes to mind. Be specific and don’t hold back.
To get started, consider the following questions that User’s First Alliance recommends asking:
- What do you like and not like about your current wheelchair?
- What do you want your chair to do for you?
- How long do you sit in your chair each day?
- How long are you outside each day?
- What kind of transportation do you use?
- Have you ever had skin breakdown (pressure sore)?
- Can you do all the activities you would like in your current wheelchair?
- What activities would a new wheelchair allow you to do?
What will your ongoing needs be? How will your body change in the coming years? You may want a chair that can grow with you as your needs change, especially if those changes will happen in the next five years. Five years is the average length of time a chair is expected to last for you.
Consider how you will drive your chair. Where do you have the most consistent movement in your body? It could be your toe, knee, head, finger or anywhere!
The more time you put into this part of the process, the more likely you’ll be to get the best chair possible for your needs. Don’t be afraid to write down everything you are looking for. Nothing is too small or too big a concern.
Step 2: Research, Research, Research
If you were calling around town trying to locate all the wheelchair dealers to research all of your options, this part might just take forever.
That’s why Abilities Expo brings them all to you under one roof. Follow the Alliance’s worksheet and visit all the appropriate vendors to find the answers your need.
Whether you’re selecting a manual or power wheelchair, you will find that each includes many options to be considered and decided on. Below are common options to review. Remember EVERY option has pros and cons. It’s all about striking the right balance to meet your needs. The more you learn about the many options available, the better equipped you’ll be to make these choices.
- Folding or Rigid (non-folding)
- Wheels and Axles
- Types of Tires
- Seat Pan that has adjustment for optimal positioning (called squeeze or dump in the seat). This provides more stability in your trunk.
- Make sure your arms contact the wheel at the right location to protect your shoulders from pain or injury
- Designer colors, spinners, chrome and other fun things—your wheelchair should reflect your personality!
- Power Seat Functions: Tilt, Recline, Seat Elevator, and Power Legs. Tilt is when the whole system tilts together (no change in seat to back angle). Recline is when just the back of the chair moves. Seat elevator shifts your seat up and down. Power legs elevate the leg rests. All of the power seat functions allow your body to move frequently and effortlessly which is the most normal state for you to be in. Typically a body cycles through positions every 10 seconds.
- Size and Drive Wheel Location. Choosing between front, mid and rear drive wheel will have various impacts on how your chair maneuvers. Try all three to see which you like best.
- Base and Seating System. You may want to view these parts as separate. Some manufacturers offer a variety of seating systems and bases that can integrate together.
- Cushions. Almost any cushion can go on any wheelchair—that’s important to know. Items to consider include how you transfer, if you slide and your history with pressure sores. It may be necessary for you to use a thicker cushion so your body is safe from a pressure wound.
You are Shopping for Function and Service
Keep this in the back of your mind all the way through the process. Ann says. “You’re not looking only for a specific brand, but the functioning of the wheelchair and the service from the supplier.” The supplier may carry a variety of brands and is responsible for servicing the wheelchair. First you want to get the chair you need (function). But that’s only half the battle. Your chair will be with you for some time, five years or more. You want to be working with a supplier who will provide good service. Do they have ATPs on staff? Are they a member of NRRTS, the National Registry of Rehabilitation Suppliers? Find out in advance what you can expect for service and think about how that will fit into your daily needs. Will you need to go to the location for service or will they come to you? Is their service available 24 hours a day? Do they carry all the models of equipment that are part of your seating system? Take the time up front to form a good relationship with your supplier. You’ll be thankful in the future!
Step 3: The Prescription
Once you’ve done your due diligence and investigated your mobility options at Abilities Expo, it’s time to go home and tackle a few more steps before you are ready to purchase. Work with your physician. Have them write you a prescription for a “custom wheelchair and seating evaluation.” “Custom” is best to obtain results that will best support your health and needs long-term.
Step 4: Locate a Seating Clinic with Seating Specialists
A Seating Clinic will offer you a variety of seating and mobility products. Most importantly, you want a clinic that is staffed by seating specialists. These are therapists with training to help you make decisions about which devices will best meet your needs and lifestyle. Look for therapists with the ATP designation. ATP’s, or Assistive Technology Professionals, are certified by RESNA and specialize in assistive technology. If at all possible, go to the clinic so you can work with your seating specialist in person.
Step 5: Finding the Money
We’ve all heard the story. Someone finds the perfect chair, they get very excited about the possibilities...and then someone tells you your insurance will not cover the cost. User’s First Alliance advises strongly—do not give up if this happens. You may need to push and advocate to get what you want and need. If you learn your insurance will not pay be sure to ask why and get this information in writing. There is a reason behind their decision and the better you understand it, the more likely you are to solve it. Ann says, “Ask why, why, why, why?” A common response is to say you don’t qualify for an option. Ask what you need to do to show that you do qualify. Ask if you can appeal. Turn to your seating specialist for assistance; this is where they can provide help. Remember it’s your insurance company—you can talk directly with them about what is medically necessary for you to get the device. By pushing along this path you may find you can get your equipment much quicker. Often, some additional documentation addressing the reason for denial will be all you need. You will be more successful if you view yourself as the leader of this process. You are the only one who can truly advocate for you. Use your relationship with wheelchair professionals to help you, not do it for you.
For More Information and Resources
We definitely discovered there is a lot to think about when choosing a new wheelchair. You cannot sit back and rely on others—being a part of the process is so helpful to realizing your dream mobility device. Put time into preparing, consider pros and cons, shop for function and service, and keep in mind that you may need to push and advocate for what you want.
Other key websites to visit include:
- User’s First Alliance
- Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA)
- National Registry of Rehabilitation Technology Suppliers (NRRTS)