how to buy a wheelchairDoes the thought of buying a wheelchair online scare you a little? Well, don’t worry, wheelchairs are nothing to be scared about! After learning some of the basic wheelchair lingo, choosing and buying a wheelchair online isn’t a big deal at all!  I work with wheelchairs every day as a custom wheelchair specialist for a durable medical equipment company. So, I am going to share my experience with you in this buying guide – the definitive guide if I do say so myself!. By the end of this article, you will know how to buy a wheelchair online and feel confident doing it!

Wheelchair Terminology

The terminology, words, and lingo used around wheelchairs sometimes has a language of its own. Most of the specify a feature or size of the wheelchair. But, once you understand the meaning of these terms, those technical wheelchair descriptions will make more sense to you.

  • Standard Manual Wheelchair – these are the types of wheelchairs that you buy already put together. They are ordered by size of seat width and seat depth to fit the person using the wheelchair. These chairs are not customized in any way and are mass manufactured to fit a wide range of wheelchair users.
  • Seat Width – this is the width of the seating area of the wheelchair, not the width of the wheelchair itself. In general, this is a measurement of the area between the armrests. The most common seat widths of standard manual and basic power wheelchairs are 16″, 18″, and 20″.
  • Overall Width – this measurement tells you the width of the entire wheelchair at its widest point. It includes the wheels and hand rims on manual wheelchairs. It is important to know this to make sure the wheelchair you buy will fit through the doorways of the home.
  • Seat Depth – this is the measurement from the front to the wheelchair seat upholstery to the front side of the wheelchair back upholstery. This is the length of the seat where the user is seated. The most common depths are 16″ and 18″. Some wheelchairs are available in 20″ deep too.
  • Seat to Floor Height – this is the measurement from the floor to the top of the seat upholstery. It tells you how high the seat is off of the floor and indicates how far off of the floor the user is seated. Common seat to floor heights are 18″ to 20″. Although there isn’t a lot of choice in seat to floor height with standard manual wheelchairs, it is important because it is a factor in how easy or hard the wheelchair is to get in or out of.
  • Hemi Height Wheelchair – this is a wheelchair that has a lower seat to floor height than a standard wheelchair. It rides lower to the ground and works better for people who are shorter in height (5’2″ and under) or push the wheelchair with their feet. Seat to floor heights less than 18″ are considered hemi wheelchairs.
  • Full-Length Arms – Usually 14″, these are the longer of the two arm length choices. Because they are longer, they provide better support for the arms but may interfere with tables or desks.
  • Desk Length Arms – Usually 10″ and the smaller of the two arm lengths choices. They allow the wheelchair to get closer to tables and desks but have less support for the arms.
  • Swing Away Leg Rests – these support the legs and feet while using the wheelchair. This kind of leg rest does not raise up. However, they do swing out to the side of the wheelchair after releasing a latch. This moves them out of the way to make it easier to get in and out of the wheelchair.
  • Elevating Leg Rests – these are leg rests that go up and down to support the legs and feet in various positions and angles. This allows the legs to be raised up to reduce swelling or pain. Elevating leg rests also swing out of the way to make it easier to get in and out of the wheelchair.

Measure the Person Using the Wheelchair

Now that you know some basic wheelchair terminology, the next step in our process of buying a wheelchair online is to measure the person who will use the wheelchair. Having these measurements allows you to know what size of wheelchair to order.

You will need a tape measure and a measurement worksheet to record your measurements. I recommend you use a metal tape measure, not a fabric one. Fabric tape measures may stretch and give wrong measurements.

Here’s how to measure a person for a wheelchair:

  1. Write down the height and weight of the person who will be using the wheelchair.
  2. Have the person sit on a firm chair like a dining chair or patio chair. You want them sitting on a harder surface so that you can get accurate measurements. If they are sitting on something soft, they will sink back into it giving inaccurate measurements. Do not measure the person in a recliner or on the couch. I used to try to do this early in my career as a custom wheelchair specialist because I didn’t want to ask people to move. I almost always ended up with bad measurements. Make sure someone is standing close if the user has balance problems or at risk for falling.
  3. Face the user and measure across the hips from edge of one hip to the edge of the other hip. What you are measuring here is the hip width which you will use to determine the seat width you need. This will allow you to order the best-sized wheelchair.
  4. Next, go to the side of the person being measured. Measure the person from where their back touches the back of the chair, along the bottom of the leg, to the back of the lower leg where the knee bends. Here you are measuring the area that makes contact with the seat. We call this the “hip to knee” in the industry. You will use this measurement to figure out the needed seat depth for the wheelchair you will buy.
  5. Now, measure the lower leg. You want to measure from the back of the knee where it bends to the bottom of the foot at the heel. In the industry, we call this the “knee to heel” or lower leg length (catchy, huh!). This measurement is used to determine the length of the leg rests and also the seat to floor height.
  6. Let’s go ahead and measure the height of the back too. Most standard manual chairs do not allow you to adjust this but go ahead and record it just in case. To get this measurement, measure the person from where their bottom makes contact with the seat to the top of their shoulder. This is called the back height. Record it on the sheet with your other measurements.

There, that wasn’t so bad, huh? A few of these measurements may not be used but are good to have anyway. Keep the measurement sheet handy for the next step in the process.

nice living room but too crowded for a wheelchairMeasure the Home the Wheelchair Will Be Used In

This is the step that a lot of people do not realize they need until it is too late. It is very important to look around the house and measure all the doorways the chair will need to go through. It doesn’t do any good to have a wheelchair that will not fit in the home where it is needed. So, grab that tape measure and let’s go.

Entry Door Measurement

First, walk a path through the house imagining you are in a wheelchair. Start at the front door. Measure the width of the front door opening. Note I said (or wrote rather) the opening, not the door itself. The door will always measure wider than the opening because of trim, soffit, and door stops. Measure the narrowest part of the opening and record it on the measurement sheet.

Main Living Areas

Next, walk to the kitchen looking for things that may get in the way. It is not uncommon to have to move furniture when a wheelchair is used. Write down the measurements of the doorways opening to the kitchen while you are here. Walk to the living room, then down the hall towards bedrooms and bathrooms. Again, look for obstacles and measuring doorways. If the hallway looks narrow, measure that width too. Write these measurements down on the sheet.

Bedroom and Bathroom

Now, walk into the bedroom and measure the door opening. Take a good look at furniture arrangement. The bedroom is where I usually recommend moving furniture the most. Often a dresser or chest will need to be moved.

Finally, take a look at the bathroom. Many homes are built with skinny doorways in the bathroom and may not have room for using a wheelchair in them.  Measure the door opening and also the distance between the vanity and wall or other bathroom fixtures if the space between them looks like it could be a problem.

two clasped hands with a wheelchair in the backgroundWhat Size Wheelchair Do You Need?

Now that we have all of these measurements, we are going to use them to determine what size wheelchair is best for your situation. Standard wheelchair dimensions of seat sizes are usually between 16″ and 20″ wide to 16″ to 18″ deep. There are larger sizes also to fit larger people. The seat size is important to the comfort of a wheelchair as well as its function. Wheelchair sizes are indicated by seat width by seat depth. For example, a 16″ X 18″ wheelchair will have a seat width of 16″ and a seat depth of 18″. This is a nearly universal standard.

1. Figure Out the Seat Width

Let’s start with the hip width, In the industry, we usually add an inch to this measurement to give a little room to move. If the person wears a lot of baggy clothing or thick clothes, maybe add 2″ to the hip width. Climate is also a factor here. If you live in a colder area and wear coats longer in the year, you will want to allow a little extra here. Since the common sizes are 16″, 18′, and 20″ you will probably just round up to the nearest width.

Note, though, you do not want too much extra space to the sides of the seat. If the wheelchair is too wide, the user will have trouble reaching the wheels. This could cause shoulder pain and even injury. For example, if the hips measured 15″, a seat width of 20″ is probably inappropriate.

Seat Width Calculation:


2. Figure Out the Seat Depth

Next, let’s figure out the seat depth. Unfortunately, there are not a whole lot of options when buying standard manual wheelchairs. Often the only choices are 16″ to 18″ deep. There are some 20″ deep models out there too for taller people (6’2″ and taller),

Look at the “hip to knee” measurement from step 4 above. This is the maximum seat depth you should choose. Often, it is best to subtract 1″ from this measurement.  If the chair depth is too deep, the user can not sit all the way back into it. This causes them to get pulled forward in the chair leading to a slouching posture. In most cases, you will choose a 16″ deep or 18″ deep chair just making sure the chosen depth does not exceed the “hip to knee” measurement.

Seat Depth Calculation:


3. Figure Out the Maximum Overall Width

Take a look at all of your doorway measurements. Find the narrowest doorway measurement. To make sure the wheelchair you buy fits through the doorway, look for a total overall width that is 2″ less than that measurement. This allows a little room for elbows and hands to push the wheelchair.

Maximum Overall Width Calculation:


Most websites will tell you what the overall width of a wheelchair is. If you cannot find the overall width of a wheelchair, you generally add 8″ to the seat width of the chair. This allows for armrests, wheels and hand rims. If you plan to buy a transport wheelchair, you only need to add 3″ to the seat width for the armrests. This is because the wheels on a transport chair are underneath the chair – not out to the side.

Converting Seat Width to Max Overall Width Calculation:



4. Figure Out the Leg Rest Type and Length

The leg rest length is pretty straightforward. For most standard manual chairs, the leg rests will be set at the “knee to heel” measurement from the measurement sheet.

There is one exception to this, however. If you will be using a cushion in the wheelchair, you have to subtract the 1/2 of the thickness of the cushion from the lower leg length measurement. This accounts for the fact the user is sitting higher because they are sitting on a cushion.

Don’t let this stress you out though. Most leg rests on wheelchairs today offer quick, tool-free adjustments. It is easier to just adjust the leg rests when the person is seated in the wheelchair. Usually, you want the leg rests set where the upper leg is parallel to the floor.

Leg Rest Length Calculation:


While shopping for a wheelchair, you will find three main types of leg rests: fixed leg rests, swing away leg rests and elevating leg rests.

Fixed Legrests

This style of leg rest is welded or permanently attached to the wheelchair and cannot be removed. The advantage is you cannot lose them. A key disadvantage though is that they will get in the way of the user while they are getting in and out of the chair. Also, fixed leg rests on wheelchairs make the wheelchair longer and harder to navigate since they cannot be removed in tight spaces.

Swing Away Legrests

This is the most common style of leg rest that you will see while shopping for wheelchairs. These have a button or latch that allow them to be moved to the side out of the way of the user. They can usually be removed too. This keeps them from getting in the way of the user while they are getting in and out of the chair. Swing-away leg rests prevent trips and falls because of this.

Elevating Leg Rests

These leg rests raise up on the front of the chair bringing the legs up in the air. This style of leg rest is used with people who have swelling in their legs or pain in their legs from arthritis or vascular problems. Most use a ratchet lever that locks the leg rest in the elevated position after being manually raised by the user or caregiver. Moving the lever allows the leg rests to be lowered. Most elevating leg rests also swing away for transfers too.

The advantage of the elevating leg rests is that the legs can be raised to reduce swelling and improve comfort. However, elevating leg rests are bigger and heavier than other leg rests so they make the wheelchair heavier and longer. This could be a disadvantage for some users.

5. Figure Out the Seat to Floor Height

Many of the standard wheelchairs available to buy online do not have an option to change the seat to floor height. At best, you may find one that changes from a standard height of 19″ or 20″ to a hemi height of 16″ to 17″. This is done by moving the axle down to a different position. Standard wheelchair heights will accommodate most people unless they are extremely short or very tall.

Look at the “knee to heel” or lower leg length measurement you took earlier. Most people tend to measure between 15″ and 19″. Most standard wheelchairs will work fine for these leg lengths. If the measurement is more than 19″, you can make up for that by adding a cushion to the seat which will raise the overall seat to floor height. If the measurement is less than 15″ and the user wants to foot propel, you should contact a medical equipment provider locally for assistance.

General Seat to Floor Height Rule:


I wouldn’t worry too much about the seat to floor height of a standard manual wheelchair especially for people who are between 5’2″ and 6’2″. In my world of custom wheelchairs, this is a much more important factor.

6. Figure Out the Preferred Arm Rest Size

Armrests come in two basic lengths:  full-size arms and desk size arms. The main difference between the two is the length. Full-length arms are 14″ long and desk length arms are 10″.

The deciding factor for armrest length is where the wheelchair will be used most. If the user prefers to sit close to a dining room table or a computer desk, I recommend desk length arms because they allow the person to get closer to objects. Full-length arms offer better support for the arms but may not get under tables and desks as easily.

7. Figure Out Wheelchair Weight Capacity Needed

Most wheelchairs have a weight limit of 250 lbs and more and more of them have increased the weight capacity to 300 lbs. For larger users, there are weight capacities up to 400 lb, 500lb, and even a 1000 lb! I recommend staying within 90% of a wheelchair’s weight capacity. This allows for weight gain and fluid retention. For example, if the person weighs 245 lb, I would choose a 300 lb weight limit chair over a 250 lb.

General Weight Capacity Rule:


Quick Reference Wheelchair Sizing Chart by Height and Weight

Is all of this measuring business is more than you want to get in to? There are some general rules of thumb for choosing a wheelchair size based on the user’s weight and height.

Suggested Wheelchair Size Based on User Height and Weight (Seat Width X Seat Depth)
Under 5’5″5’5″ to 5’9″5’9″ to 6’2″Over 6’3″
Under 100 lbs16″ x 16″16″ x 18″16″ x 20″16″ x 20″
100 lbs to 150 lbs16″ x 16″16″ X 18″16″ x 20″16″ x 20″
150 lbs to 200 lbs18″ x 16″18″ x 18″18″ x 20″18″ x 20″
200 lbs to 250 lbs20″ x 16″20″ x 18″18″ x 20″18″ x 20″
250 lbs to 300 lbs*22″ x 16″22″ x 18″20″ x 20″20″ x 20″
300 lbs to 400 lbs*24″ x 16″24″ x 18″22″x 20″22″x 20″
Over 400 lbs*Should be measured based on body shape
* check weight limit of chair before buying

Keep in mind that these are general guidelines. Sometimes, a person’s shape matters. For example, a 5’6″ tall 200-lb lady who is larger on bottom than top will need a different size chair than one who is broader in the shoulders and narrower in the hips.

paying with a credit cardBuying a Wheelchair

Now you should have all the information (and confidence!) you need to buy a wheelchair. Take a look at your measuring guide, and let’s do a quick review of your needs:

Seat Width = ________     X   Seat Depth = _____________

Maximum Overall Width:  _______ “

Arm Rest Size:  _____ Full Length Arms (14″)   -or-    ____ Desk Length Arms (10″)

Leg Rest Type: _____ Swingaway   -or-   _____  Elevating Leg Rests

Weight Capacity Needed: _____

Having this information allows you to look at a wheelchair and make sure it will fit your needs.

How to Buy a Wheelchair

When shopping and comparing wheelchairs, here is the best process to follow:

  1. Wheelchair Size – match the wheelchair to the sizes needs you identified above. Look closely at the weight capacity of the wheelchairs as you shop.
  2. Weight of the Chair – I haven’t really talked about this yet, but look at the wheelchairs total weight. If the chair is going to be transported in a vehicle or the patient is extremely weak, get a lightweight folding wheelchair. This will make it easier to take along and to push.  Something under 30 lbs is best.
  3. Compare Prices – Many wheelchair manufacturers have set a minimum price that their retailers can sell their wheelchairs. Sometimes, though, you will often find some variation in pricing. Larger retailers are more likely to sell at the minimum sales prices.
  4. Read User Reviews – read reviews from existing users. This is a good way to identify common problems. Amazon and Walmart are good places to read reviews for people who have actually used the wheelchairs. One caution though, don’t let a few bad reviews keep you from buying a wheelchair you like – look for patterns. Give higher weight to verified reviews of experts and actual users of the product.
  5. Shipping and Other Charges – especially if buying a wheelchair online, make sure you know what the total cost is including shipping and other fees. Look for free shipping offers. Online retailers like Amazon offer free shipping to Prime Members. Walmart is now offering free shipping to home or your local store to compete with Amazon.
  6. Return Policy – Make sure you are aware of the return policy. Some places will not allow returns of medical equipment because of how it is used. Others allow returns within a short window of time.

Where to Buy a Wheelchair

Wheelchairs can be purchased at local medical equipment stores, pharmacies, big box stores, and online retailers. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages:

  • Durable Medical Equipment (DME) Dealers  – here you will find more knowledge and experience than any other places to buy a wheelchair. Many local durable medical equipment stores though cannot buy as well as the big box retailers so you will pay more for a wheelchair. However, if you want hands-on service and advice, it will probably be worth it to you to pay a little more. DME stores can special order all sizes and types of wheelchairs and they will work with your insurance plan. (Disclosure: I work at a local DME dealer.)
  • Pharmacies and Big Box Stores – the advantage of buying a wheelchair at a pharmacy or big box store is that they have wheelchairs in stock that you can take with you. Pricing is typically decent because they have national chain buying power. However, sizes options are limited and product knowledge is limited. Pharmacies will sometimes work with your insurance but big box stores usually will not.
  • Online Retailers – The big advantage here is price and available choices. Especially if you are paying out of pocket for a wheelchair.  Disadvantages are you will have to wait a few days and are on your own a little more for choosing a wheelchair.

Wrapping it All Up!

I hope I have given you all the information you need to confidently buy a wheelchair online or at a local store. It is an easy process once you understand some of the basic terms and how to take some simple measurements. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them for me in the comments below!