14 Different Types of Wheelchairs to Meet the Needs of Different Individuals

scott grant ATP

Certified Assistive Technology Professional
Medical Equipment Guru
Mobility Specialist
Senior Advocate

women using 2 different types of manual wheelchairs
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Many people think a wheelchair is a wheelchair. I mean, they all have 4 wheels and people use them to get around when they are having trouble walking. Right?

Wrong! There are many different types of wheelchairs and they each have their pros and cons.  

Keep on reading to learn more about each type to help you choose the best wheelchair for your elderly loved one or for yourself. [toc]

Types of Manual Wheelchairs

clean manual wheelchair in waiting room

The most common type of wheelchair is the manual wheelchair. They require a person to move them and have no way of moving themself.

The most common ones have an upholstered seat and back with two larger rear wheels and two smaller wheels in the front. Most fold up for storage or transportation.

Manual chairs are made for people who have the strength to push it themselves or who have a family member push them.

Here are the many different types of manual wheelchairs:

Standard Wheelchairs

These are the wheelchairs you see around hospitals and nursing homes. They are very basic wheelchairs with two large wheels in the back and two small casters in the front.

Most standard wheelchairs are used for temporary mobility problems. They are best for people who only need a chair to get from one place to another then can transfer onto a couch or their favorite recliner.

Lightweight Wheelchairs

These chairs weigh less than standard wheelchairs which makes them easier to move. They are also easier to lift and load into a car.

Lightweight wheelchairs are best for people who don’t have the strength to move a standard chair. Another great use is for caregivers who can’t lift a standard wheelchair.

Hemi Wheelchairs

The seats of hemi wheelchairs are closer to the ground than standard wheelchairs. That way, the feet can touch the ground if needed.

These chairs are best for people who are shorter in height or need to use their feet to move the wheelchair.

Ultra Lightweight Wheelchairs

man using an ultralightweight wheelchair
Example of an Ultra Lightweight Wheelchair

Most ultra lightweight wheelchairs are custom built to the measurements of their users. These chairs are made of special materials and have minimal parts. This makes them extremely lightweight as a result. Many of these chairs weigh less than 20 lbs.

Ultralight wheelchairs are designed for people who are in their wheelchairs most of the day. Common examples are paraplegics and spinal cord injury patients.

The lighter weight of the chair keeps them from getting tired as easy when they are propelling it all day. This also allows them to load and unload the wheelchair without help.

Most users of ultralights are independent in their mobility and their transfers.

Transport Wheelchairs

blue transport wheelchair
Example of a Transport Wheelchair

Transport chairs have 4 small wheels on them and are pushed by a caregiver. They are usually used for short-term transportation needs like getting to the doctor or around the grocery store. Because they are designed to be transported, most are lightweight and fold up easily.

These wheelchair users are usually too weak to push a chair by themselves. So, someone must be with them to operate the wheelchair.

Transport chairs are often built with the caregiver in mind by making them easy to load and unload in car trunks and other vehicles.

Sport Wheelchairs

A three-wheeled racing whelchair

Sports wheelchairs are very unique and highly specialized for their intended purpose. Most sports wheelchairs are usually custom built for their rider and come in different configurations depending on the sport.

Some of these chairs come in three wheeled configurations for racing. Others will have back wheels that are slanted to give them more stability. Basketball wheelchairs even have “bumper” guards on the front to minimize the impace when they hit each other.

There are special chairs for wheelchair racing, tennis chairs, basketball chairs, and other sports.

Recliner Wheelchairs

Wheelchair with a reclining back

Reclining wheelchairs are also called high back recliners. The backs on these chairs have handles that allow you to change the back angle. Some will even lay almost flat.

These chairs have a few drawbacks. Opening up the back causes the patient to slide forward over time. So, they will need to have their position adjusted throughout the day. Also, there is a slight chance of these tipping if not set up properly.

Reclining wheelchairs are more common in nursing home and long-term care settings. They are often used by people who have had strokes, patients who have trouble sitting upright by themselves or are in pretty bad overall health.

Tilting Wheelchairs

Example of a manual tilt-in-space wheelchair

These ergonomic wheelchairs have special seats that help the patient sit upright. You can lean the whole seat back so that the patient’s hip to back angle is always the same. This allows the patient to relieve pressure from sitting in a chair all day. They also help the patient sit upright better.

They are different from reclining wheelchairs. With reclining wheelchairs, only the back moves increasing the hip angle. But, with tilt in space wheelchairs, the hip angle stays the save and the whole seat tilts back together.

This type of wheelchair is used with people with more severe medical problems like cerebral palsy and quadriplegia. Often, a therapist or doctor will be involved in this product seletion.

Heavy Duty Wheelchairs

Bariatric or heavy duty wheelchairs are built stronger and are used with patients who weigh 300 lbs or more. They are usually built from reinforced steel tubing with multiple supports underneath. Wider widths are available to better fit larger patients.

Pediatric Wheelchairs

These wheelchairs are made specifically for kids and are often custom built to their measurements. They come in smaller sizes with smaller weight capacities.

One Arm Drive Wheelchairs

The final type of manual wheelchair is the one arm drive wheelchair. These chairs have special wheels that are connected and linked together. This lets the patient propel the chair using only one arm. These wheelchairs are best for people with strokes or hemiplegia (paralysis of one side of body).

They can be difficult to operate for many people and have lost their popularity in recent years.

Types of Power Wheelchairs

Power wheelchairs are also often called electric wheelchairs or motorized wheelchairs. They have motors on them to move the chairs. Power chairs also have batteries to provide power to the motors. The user drives the chair with a joystick that turns the chair on and off, controls the speed, and also steers the wheelchair.

Standard Power Wheelchairs

Group 2 Power Wheelchair
A Standard Power Wheelchair

Standard power wheelchairs are your basic sit and go type of electric wheelchair. They have motors, batteries, 4 wheels and a seat that looks like a seat from a van. The chair is controlled by a joystick mounted on the right or left arm. Batteries must be kept charge for them to work.

This level of power chair is mass-manufactured and there aren’t many extra options. They are used with patients who have problems walking and are not strong enough to push a wheelchair by themselves.

This type of power chair can be purchased over the counter by individuals or through insurance.

Complex Power Wheelchairs

a complex power wheelchair for more advanced disabilities
Complex power wheelchair with special seating functions

These power chairs are much more custom in nature and are built specifically for the user. They often have options that tilt or recline the seat and even raise the legs by power. Some of these chairs even lift the rider to a standing position.

Complex power chairs are used by people with severe medical problems like spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, ALS, or cerebral palsy. These wheelchair users are in their chairs most of the day and most use them independent of a caregiver.

Because of the cost of these chairs, they are usually paid for by insurance. Doctors, therapists, and ATP’s are usually part of the process as well.


lady riding a mobility scooter
Lady riding a for wheeled scooter

While not technically a type of wheelchair, I am including scooters because they are also used like wheelchairs. They provide mobility to someone who has trouble walking.

Mobility scooters have a seat with a handlebar type controller called a tiller. A thumb switch is used to control the speed. Some even have turn signals and warning flashers.

Scooters are most commonly used to provide mobility outside of the house for people who can walk but not long distances. Many scooters don’t maneuver well inside of small homes especially because they require a lot of room to turn.


As you can see, there are many different types of wheelchairs. Choosing the best wheelchair for you or a loved one is a matter of understanding how each type is used. It is also important to know the needs of the person who will be using the chair.

I hope you found this brief introduction to wheelchairs helpful. Please leave any questions or comments in the comments area below!

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  1. My husband has Parkinson’s Disease and spends a good portion of his day in a wheelchair. He does have a Lazyboy recliner that puts him in a standing position to exit the chair. He is at the point that he really cannot move the wheelchair with his arms or feet. I usually push him around the house.

    He is 6′ 5 ” and weighs about 225 pounds. We have a Drive wheelchair (from Medicare – with double wheels and it measures 25″ wheel to wheel). It is ruining every doorway in the house and scraping up furniture and walls. Is there any chair that would be more user friendly in a home? We have a light transport chair (24″ wide) we keep in the car for trips.

    It is an older home and the door to the master bedroom is 27 1/2″ wide; master bath is 24 1/2″ wide.

    Hoping you would have a chair that would fit the bill. Thanks.

    • Hi Mary! The 24-1/2″ bathroom door is probably going to be a problem. Any chance of widening that? I would guess that your husband could use an 18″ wide (seat width) wheelchair but these will be close to 24″ when you factor in the wheels and handrims. You could remove the handrims and gain back 2″ or 3″? The overall width of a wheelchair is dependent on the seat width unfortunately and the chair has to also fit the user.
      Have you talked to your doctor or therapist about a power wheelchair. Based on the Parkinson’s diagnosis, he qualifies for a programmable, Group 3 power wheelchair that can be customized and adapted based on his condition now and in the future. Find a local home medical equipment company that has an ATP (Assistive Technology Professional) on staff to help. I work with this type of patient every day in my local practice and there are options but it might take someone coming to the home and assessing the home access and your husband’s condition. Good luck and God you as you care for your husband!

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