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Custom Wheelchairs: The Trend from Functionality to Individuality

By Gene Emmer

Wheelchairs have been around for hundreds of years, but early wheelchairs were intended only to help a disabled individual move from point A to point B. As society progressed and disabled individuals became more integrated, the role of the wheelchair began to change as well. Wheelchairs are now considered not only a means of transportation but also as a way to allow users to express their individuality. Users can find custom-made high quality ultra-light high-performance wheelchairs as well as accessories that enable them to individualize their look and style. The move from functionality to individuality is discussed in this article.

(This article with photos:

There were many attempts to connect furniture to wheels dating back to the time of Christ. But perhaps the first 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, he needed assistance to propel it and the chair resembled more a modern baby's highchair than a wheelchair of today. In 1665 one of the first self-propelled vehicles was invented by Stephan Farfler. But it looked more like a present day hand-bike than a wheelchair as it was propelled by hand cranks attached to the front wheel. 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 and slings for seat and backrests. The 20th century saw a rapid development in wheelchairs, from the first motorized wheelchair, to the first folding wheelchair, to lightweight and sports wheelchairs.

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 individualized need and taste. The recent trend is towards customization. Customized wheelchairs are now being requested for many reasons:

-fitting special physical needs

-improving or providing special performance

-expressing style and image

Customization of the wheelchair to fit some special needs of the user can include simple modifications of standard designs or creating an entirely unique design. Imagine a mother who is a triple amputee. How will she move herself and her baby? Special wheelchairs can now be designed to help her. For example a user with an amputated arm can use a special wheel which has dual handrims to allow both wheels to be controlled with one hand. The wheelchair can also be modified so that it stretched in front, allowing the child seat to be attached to the wheelchair in front of the mother. Other examples may include designing extra long or extra short wheelchairs for very tall or small users or reinforced wheelchairs for heavy users or specialized devices for users that have limited motor control or functions. Customized wheelchairs are now being regularly designed to accommodate nearly every special need.

Individualizing wheelchairs for performance is often required for athletes or very active users. This can include creating special wheelchairs for dance with the ideal center of gravity which help the user to perform spins and complicated maneuvers with ease. Dancers with limited motor control can have special handles created which allow their able bodied partners to assist them in their turns or maneuvers. Tennis players can have special requirements like reverse tilt seating position where the back of the seat is higher than the front, in order to give increased power in the arm and body movements. Rugby players need specially designed wheelchairs that can take a very hard hit without damaging the wheelchair or the occupant.

Customization for performance is not only for athletes, it can also improve the comfort for everyday users. Frames can be custom designed to fit the individual's body like a glove. Also, customized wheelchairs are lighter and usually perform better. Most mass produced wheelchairs are made by using adjustable brackets to hold the frame together so that a prefabricated wheelchair can be adjusted to fit different individual's sizes and requirements. However, these brackets create weight. Customized wheelchairs are made to fit the individual that they are created for. Instead of using adjustable brackets, the wheelchair parts are welded together. This means that the wheelchair is not at all adjustable, so it must be designed correctly by an experienced professional. However, since welds are lighter than brackets, customized wheelchairs are considerably lighter. They also usually perform better since the energy from the push may be lost in small movement within the brackets.

Customization can also individualize the look and style. Wheelchairs can be painted with special colors or designs, upholstery can be made to order, lighted casters, funky spoke guards with individualized patterns and bling-bling wheels with rotating spinners give the wheelchair a very unique look. Accessories can be purchased to complete the look. Leather, zip-on, frame covers can give an elegant style and bags made from material to match the upholstery can complete the look.

Advances in assistive technology, such as the recent progress in wheelchair design make it easier for disabled individuals to integrate into society. But even with new technology, users would not be able to integrate without public access and funding to purchase the new technology. The best wheelchair in the world would not help a disabled person to move about if society did not provide ramps, special doors and other infrastructure to enable access to public spaces, transportation, sidewalks and roads. And while in some countries laws have been created and public funds have been set aside to help disabled people integrate, in many other countries access is not yet available and wheelchair users are left at home. In such countries wheelchair individualization is still a thing of the future. Assistive technology can improve the wheelchair but it takes a progressive society to improve the surrounding world.

About The Author

Dr. Gene Emmer and Galina Soldatenko manage Med Services Europe. Med Services Europe GmbH is based in Zurich, Switzerland and specializes in Sales, Marketing and Business Development for the Medical industry. Med Services Europe helps manufacturers to build sales of their products. We are the European representative for Colours Wheelchairs, a US manufacturer of ultra lightweight and customized wheelchairs Colours N Motion. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers of disability products are encouraged to contact Med Services Europe. For more information: Med Services Europe or New Disability or Telephone: 41764249963


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