Manual Wheelchairs: Types, Uses, Buying and Guide

scott grant ATP

Certified Assistive Technology Professional
Medical Equipment Guru
Mobility Specialist
Senior Advocate

elderly woman being pushed in a manual wheelchair
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A manual wheelchair is any wheelchair that is propelled by a person. Usually, the user of the chair pushes themselves by using handrims mounted to the rear large wheels. Manual chairs are the opposite of power wheelchairs which use batteries and motors to make the wheelchair move.

Types of Manual Wheelchairs

Manual wheelchairs are usually classified by their weight and intended use.

Transport Wheelchairs

red transport wheelchair with black upholstery on a white background
Transport wheelchairs are lightweight and designed for travel.

Transport wheelchairs, usually just called transport chairs, are small, lightweight wheelchairs that are used primarily for transporting a patient from point A to B. They are pushed by a caregiver or family member.

The user does not propel the chair without help because transport chairs have 4 small wheels that are usually about 8″ in diameter. The user cannot reach them while seated in the chair.

For easy transportation, these chairs are extremely lightweight and easy to fold. In many cases, the backs fold down also leaving a very small footprint that can go in the trunk or back seat.

Learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of these chairs here.

Standard Manual Wheelchairs

example of a typical manual wheelchair against a white background

These are the typical wheelchair that most people see around.

Standard wheelchairs are bigger than transport chairs with 2 large wheels in the back that have handrims on them. In the front are 2 smaller caster wheels.

These wheelchairs are designed to be propelled by the user pushing on the handrims. But, caregivers can push the chair as well using the push handles on the back of the chair.

Most of these wheelchairs weight about 40 lbs and are heavier than transport chairs. There are special lightweight wheelchairs too that are under 30 lbs. They do fold for transport but require more space in the trunk or storage area.

Learn more about the differences between standard manual chairs and transport chairs in this article.

Hemi Height Wheelchairs

Hemi wheelchairs look like standard manual wheelchairs but have seats that are several inches closer to the ground. This is important for shorter users or people who move their wheelchairs with their feet (foot propellers). Since the seat is closer to the ground, the user can get their feet flat on the ground easier.

Lightweight Manual Wheelchairs

This type of manual wheelchair also looks like a standard manual wheelchair but they weigh less. These chairs often weigh less than 35 pounds and fold for storage.

The lighter weight of these chairs makes it easier to propel for the user. They are also easier to lift for their caregivers or people who have to lift the wheelchair into a vehicle.

Here is a post highlighting some of the best lightweight wheelchairs on the market.

Ultralightweight Wheelchairs

These manual wheelchairs are extremely lightweight. These chairs weigh less than 30 lbs with many of them weighing less than 20 lbs

They are made of special aluminum alloys or titanium, so they are also very strong. Usually, these chairs are custom built to the size of the user and used with patients with permanent paralysis of the legs. So, they tend to be on the more expensive side.

Frequently Asked Questions about Manual Wheelchairs

How Much Do Manual Wheelchairs Cost?

Most manual wheelchairs only cost a few hundred dollars.

For example, a transport chair usually costs less than $150 with several models less than $100. Folding manual and hemi height chairs can be bought for $250 or less. Lightweight chairs are a little more expensive but are less than $500 usually.

Ultra lightweight wheelchairs are the most expensive and run into the thousands of dollars depending on the configuration.

How Much Does a Manual Wheelchair Weigh?

This is a tricky question to answer. Manufacturers all use different materials and report their weights differently.

As a general rule, transport chairs weigh between 15 and 25 lbs. Standard manual wheelchairs weigh 50 lbs plus. Lightweight wheelchairs weigh between 35 and 40 lbs.

Be careful when comparing wheelchair weights though. Make sure you read the weight disclaimer so that you know what accessories the manufacturer included in their weight figures. Some companies do not include footrests or arms in the weight.

What is the Lightest Manual Wheelchair?

woman pushing her friend in a wheelchair

Generally, transport chairs weigh the least of any of the manual wheelchairs. It is possible to buy transport chairs that weight less than 15 lbs.

There are several models of lightweight manual wheelchairs on the market that weight 30 lbs or less. Some highly customized ultralight chairs weigh less than 20 lbs.

With good care, cleaning, and maintenance, a manual wheelchair will last for years. We have patients who have had the same wheelchair for 10 and even 15 years.

Most are designed to last at least 5 years. This is mainly because most insurances will only buy a wheelchair every 5 years. During this time though, items like tires, casters, upholstery, and arm pads may need to be replaced due to wear. The wheelchair frame though should last at least 5 years.

How Wide is a Manual Wheelchair?

Manual wheelchairs are sold by seat width sizes, commonly 16″, 18″, or 20″. But, this is NOT the width of the chair overall.

Add 8″ to 10″ to the seat width to get the overall width. This takes into account the frame, the wheels, and the handrims which stick out from the wheels.

It is very important to compare this width to the doorway widths of your home to make sure the chair will fit.

What are the Main Parts of a Manual Wheelchair?

Manual chairs are basically made up of a folding frame with seat and back upholstery with wheels, arms, and foot support. The folding frame is usually X shaped and is where most of the chair weight comes from. Attached the cross brace are seat rails which the seat upholstery screws into. Also attached to the back of the frame are back posts. The back upholstery is attached to the back posts to support the user’s back. At the top of the back posts are push handles which are used by the person pushing the chair.

The arms of the wheelchair are attached just beside the upholstery. Some arms adjust in height and others are stationary. Arms pads come in 2 lengths: desk length and full length. Desk arm pads are shorter and full length are longer. Desk arms make it easier to get under tables but offer less support.

There are many options for foot supports for wheelchairs. Sometimes they are attached to the wheelchair permanently and sometimes they are removable. Removable legrests swing to the side to make it easier to get in and out of the chair. Elevating legrests are another option for patients who require raising their legs due to swelling or joint problems.

These parts of the wheelchair not only affect the function of the wheelchair. They also affect the comfort of the wheelchair as well.

Manual Wheelchair How To’s

How to Choose a Manual Wheelchair

different types of wheelchairs lined up in a showroom

There is a lot to consider when buying a manual wheelchair. It is important to make sure the wheelchair seat is wide and deep enough to fit the user. But, the seat shouldn’t be too big either. Other important factors are if the wheelchair will be self-propelled and how it will be transported. I have a comprehensive wheelchair fitting and buying guide here that walks you through all of the options.

How to Fold a Manual Wheelchair

Most manual wheelchairs are designed to fold up easily for transport. Most manual wheelchairs fold up similarly. Here are the basic steps.

  1. Remove the cushion and any accessories that prevent the chair from folding.
  2. Flip up the footrests or remove the legrests completely.
  3. Grab the front and rear of the seat upholstery and pull up.
  4. This will cause the frame to fold making the wheelchair smaller.
  5. Only pick up the wheelchair by the metal frame pieces – not the arms, footrests, or upholstery.
  6. Some wheelchair wheels also pop off or the back may fold down for easier transportation.

How to Repair a Manual Wheelchair

Many basic wheelchair repairs are easy to do at home. For example, new arm pads install by loosening 2 screws in the bottom of the armrest and using the same screws to attach the new pads.  New wheel assemblies are easily installed by loosening an axle bolt. Simply reinstall and tighten the axle bolt after attaching the new wheel. Anyone who has experience working on cars or is reasonably mechanical can figure out most basic wheelchair repairs.  Generally, only basic tools such as wrenches, hex keys, and screwdrivers are needed. Here is a link to more detailed maintenance instructions.

How to Clean a Manual Wheelchair

To keep a wheelchair looking good and to extend its life, it is important to keep a manual wheelchair clean. A good idea is to give your wheelchair a weekly touch up with a monthly deep clean. For this weekly cleaning, dampen a cloth with some warm soapy water with a mild dish detergent. Use this to wipe off all the metal parts on the frame. Also, clean the armrests and footrests as well. If the chair has vinyl upholstery, this same solution will clean it up nicely as well. For nylon upholstery, use warm water or and upholstery cleaner. Here is a more detailed cleaning guide for manual wheelchairs.

To learn more, check out my other posts about manual wheelchairs.

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About the Expert...

  1. Hello there, thanks for sharing this useful post on wheelchairs. I think wheelchairs are the best option to make you independent and the best way to move from one place to another for people who are unable to move from one place to another due to disability. I am also planning to buy a manual wheelchair for my grandpa who is disabled. While discussing with my friend, he suggested I buy a wheelchair online. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    • Hi Sterling – Wheelchairs are a definite help for people with mobility problems who are unable to use any of the walking aids like canes, walkers, or rollators. It is generally ok for people to buy wheelchairs online as longs as they know how to take a few basic measurements. I have an entire guide written about this that you can check out here.

  2. That is nice that standard manual wheelchairs have two large wheels and handrims in the back so caregivers can also push the wheelchair. We have been looking for different wheelchairs to get my dad, and the standard manual wheelchair seems like a good option. I bet my dad would like it as well. Thank you for the information!

    • Hello Deb! So glad you found this information helpful! Standard manual wheelchairs are very versatile. With the handrims, your dad can push himself when he is able – that way he won’t feel so dependent. But, with the push bars in the back, you can also give him a little help when he needs it.

  3. Thanks Scott, couldn’t have said it better. I’m mostly using my power chair these days but will share this with my audience. Cheers!

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