What is a Power Wheelchair?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A power wheelchair or powerchair is a wheelchair with an attached power source, providing energy to move the chair. This contrasts with a manual wheelchair, where the user must provide energy or someone must push the chair. Power wheelchairs are used by people who lack the strength or dexterity to operate a manual chair, and they are manufactured by a number of different companies, with a variety of features and attachments for different needs.

Some power wheelchair designs have additional features, like an area for placing a ventilator.
Some power wheelchair designs have additional features, like an area for placing a ventilator.

Power wheelchairs tend to be heavy, because the body of the chair needs to include a battery and accompanying casing, along with the wiring for the control panel. One advantage of a power wheelchair for wheelchair users is the higher degree of autonomy; the wheelchair user totally controls the chair and decides when and how to move. For people who had to rely on being pushed in a manual chair before, this can create a greater sense of freedom of movement and independence.

Basic power wheelchairs have a control panel in the arm, often with a joystick, allowing the user to operate the chair with a hand. If hand control is not possible, there are other control measures available, like a tube the person breathes into to direct the chair. When people first purchase a power wheelchair, they are usually provided with several fitting and get-acquainted sessions. The chair's features are demonstrated and adjusted to make it comfortable for the user, who is also given a chance to learn to steer the chair in a controlled environment, thus getting used to the controls without having to worry about hitting people or objects.

People who use power wheelchairs for mobility need access to an area to charge batteries. Battery life varies, depending on chair model and how it is utilized. The chair may plug directly into a wall outlet, or people may remove the battery to charge it in a charging station. The chair is also periodically inspected to make sure all the components are working properly and safely, and the quality of the battery may be assessed to see when it needs to be replaced. Eventually, it will start losing charge quickly, indicating that it is exhausted.

Some power wheelchair designs have additional features, like an area for placing a ventilator, for people who use a ventilator for breathing. There are also models that allow people to raise and lower the structure of the chair so they can adjust their height; some allow people to assume a standing position with the support of the chair, for example.

People unfamiliar with wheelchair users sometimes feel awkward around someone in a power wheelchair and are not sure how to act. Generally, handling any part of the chair without permission is considered a breach of etiquette. When talking to someone in a power wheelchair, if a chair is available to sit in, it should be used, so everyone in the conversation can be at eye level. People should also make sure there is sufficient clearance for the wheelchair user to move and turn around; if an obvious obstacle is present, it should be moved out of the way.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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