Article originally featured on Forbes.com
An electric wheelchair gives the gift of mobility to people otherwise bound to their homes due to illness, stroke or injury—and the right wheelchair opens up a world of travel.
Cory Lee, 31, of Georgia has been in a wheelchair since he was 4 years old. He’s also an avid traveller—he’s hot air ballooned in Israel, floated in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland and had a run-in with a hippopotamus in South Africa—and an expert in travelling in a wheelchair. Over the course of his life, Lee has used many different sizes and types of wheelchairs—and knows the importance of buying the right one.
Here are some guidelines to follow when searching for the best electric wheelchair and what to expect in the process.
What Is an Electric Wheelchair?
An electric wheelchair—also called a powered or motorized wheelchair—is a four- or six-wheel chair with a motor that runs on one or two batteries. These wheelchairs are maneuvered with a joystick and require no upper body strength. Powered wheelchair varieties range from simple, standard wheelchairs for short-term use to highly customized versions for more complex and long-term needs.
Electric wheelchairs like the ones used by Lee fall into a category called complex rehabilitation technology, or CRT. “These wheelchairs are measured and built specifically to meet each individual’s unique needs,” says Angie Kiger, a clinical strategy and educational manager at Sunrise Medical, a California-based wheelchair manufacturer. This technology includes multiple positioning options, advanced electronics and controls, adjustments for orthopedic issues and accommodations for ventilators.
Key Differences Between an Electric Wheelchair and a Mobility Scooter
When people lose the ability to walk, they turn to motorized vehicles, such as a mobility scooter or a powered wheelchair. Mobility scooters are three- or four-wheel vehicles that aren’t highly customizable. Electric wheelchairs usually feature four to six wheels and can be designed to the user’s specifications. “A mobility scooter is for people who have some mobility who can transfer in and out of it,” says Lee.
Who Benefits From an Electric Wheelchair?
A powered wheelchair can be a helpful alternative or necessity for anyone unable to operate a wheelchair manually. People who cannot walk due to a permanent or progressive illness that causes disability can benefit significantly from an electric wheelchair.
How to Pick the Best Electric Wheelchair for You
If you’re new to the world of powered wheelchairs, check out the following types online or at a medical supply store:
Portable power wheelchairs are basic, light and can be disassembled for easy travel.
Front-wheel power wheelchairs are powered by large front wheels, providing good traction and allowing room for the user’s feet.
Mid-wheel power wheelchairs have three sets of wheels—small ones in the front and rear, and large wheels in the middle. These wheelchairs are often known for being easy to maneuver in small spaces.
Rear-wheel power wheelchairs have small rear wheels that are powered, giving the chair an extra push from the back. This push helps users when driving over a curb or rough terrain.
Heavy-duty power wheelchairs are built for people who weigh 400 to 600 pounds.
Once you’ve determined which type of wheelchair would best suit your needs, consider comfort features that come standard or at an additional cost, as well as the wheelchair’s maximum weight capacity and accompanying batteries.
“The most important factor in choosing a wheelchair? Comfort,” says Lee. Here are a few features to consider:
Cushions. “We have a saying—there is a butt for every cushion and a cushion for every butt,” says Kiger. “All aspects of the seating system, including cushions, back supports and headrests can be customized to accommodate different sizes, postures and sensory needs.”
Tilt and recline functions. These functions help prevent pressure sores, says Kiger, and are especially important for older adults whose skin may be thin and bruise easily.
Power leg rests. When used along with the tilt and recline functions, the elevating leg rest capability can help reduce leg swelling.
Other features. “My wheelchair is a Quickie,” says Lee. “I can raise up and down so I can be at eye level, and the footrest can kick out to release pressure on my legs from sitting all day.”
“The average power chair can carry up to 350 pounds and run over most surfaces that a client might wish to traverse,” says Thomas Henley, the owner of Henley Medical in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“Most power chairs have two batteries and cost about $250 to $300 each,” says Henley.
Most electric wheelchairs can travel about 10 miles on a full charge, so some people choose to charge them every night or every other night, says Lee. As for average battery life, Lee says he’s had batteries last anywhere from three to five years. The lifespan of a battery depends on many factors, including how often it’s charged and how much the wheelchair is used.
How Much Do Electric Wheelchairs Cost?
Prices for electric wheelchairs can range from $2,000 for a standard, portable power wheelchair like the Pride Go Chair to $6,000 for a fully adjustable and highly maneuverable model like the Quickie Q500 M Power Wheelchair.
Meanwhile, highly customized electric wheelchairs can cost much more—anywhere between $12,000 and $50,000, according to Henley. And it’s rare for a funding source, be it Medicare or private health insurance, to come close to covering the full retail price.
How you plan to pay for an electric wheelchair can play a significant role in determining your range of wheelchair choices. To help navigate payment options, The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation provides fact sheets, videos and access to information specialists for people learning about the funding process.
To be reimbursed for an electric wheelchair through Medicare, a doctor must prescribe the chair as a medical necessity. Wheelchairs fall under the durable medical equipment (DME) category of Medicare Part B, but Medicare is very restrictive about who can receive reimbursement for a powered wheelchair.
“Under Medicare guidelines, you cannot have any ambulation to get [a wheelchair],” says Bernadette Mauro, director of information and research services at the Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation. No ambulation means the user cannot walk or stand at all.
Next, you must coordinate a meeting with a certified occupational therapist or physical therapist and a Medicare-approved supplier of wheelchairs so they can evaluate your abilities and needs, and submit the proper forms.
From submitting the necessary information to Medicare to finally receiving a custom wheelchair, the process can take four months to a year, says Kiger.
Private insurance companies are no more flexible than Medicare when it comes to funding an electric wheelchair. “Medicare guidelines are used by almost every insurance company,” says Mauro.
It’s possible to pay for an electric wheelchair out-of-pocket if insurance coverage is not available.
Warranties and Return Policies
Warranties from manufacturers generally last one to two years, says Henley, covering motors, electronics, joysticks and frames, but not tires, seats or back cushions.
Return policies vary, and many suppliers will not accept returns, he adds. Ask your supplier about their policy before finalizing a purchase.
Wheelchair casters, tires, arm pads and bearings often need replacing. “Quality dependable service is of great importance,” says Henley. “Research the history of the service department of the dealer from whom you plan to buy a chair,” he adds, recommending talking to others who’ve used that particular store. The lifespan of parts depends on how much a powered wheelchair is used and how well it’s maintained. Keep in mind that Medicare allows for a new power wheelchair every five years.
Finding the Right Fit for Your Home
It’s important to make sure the wheelchair you want will fit in your home. An occupational therapist can help you determine the height and width of the wheelchair and compare that to the width of your hallways, doorways and the space in your bathroom and kitchen. Other considerations include whether you need to add a ramp to your home or move the bedroom to the first floor. If Medicare coverage is an option, your chosen supplier will help with fitting.
“The wheelchair provider is required by Medicare to make a home visit to ensure the equipment will work in the client’s homes,” says Kiger. “Home evaluation often includes measuring steps and doorways… Medicare wants to know that the wheelchair will improve mobility-related activities of daily living.”