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Should You Bring a Manual or Power Wheelchair?

Woman in a manual wheelchair gets assistance down a ramp outside a carved wooden door
Woman in a manual wheelchair gets assistance down a ramp outside a carved wooden door

Choosing a chair for mobility is a personal preference, but other factors can help inform your decision.

For wheelchair users, trying to decide between the portability of a manual chair and the independence of a power chair can be a difficult decision. Some travelers choose to bring both in order to use a power wheelchair as a primary means of mobility while having a back-up manual wheelchair with them just in case.

For those who do not use a wheelchair at home but who have other mobility disabilities, renting or bringing along a lightweight wheelchair could offer benefits while abroad, especially if travel over long distances or over difficult terrain is expected. Ask wheelchair users for tips and practice using a wheelchair on different surfaces before you leave.

Three Considerations

Does your power wheelchair take apart easily? Chairs that can be disassembled or folded will be easier to load onto a bus, car or taxi than those that do not. Some power chairs require some extra effort or equipment to disassemble, but may be a fair compromise to someone who values both independent mobility and portability.

What is your destination? Modern industrialized nations are more likely to provide conditions that are accessible to a power wheelchair, such as lifts on buses, sidewalks with ramped curbs, and relatively easy access to most public buildings than developing countries. When asking about access in lodgings, classrooms, etc. abroad see if you can get measurements and photographs. Also be specific when asking, for example “I need a door opening to be at least 3 feet (92cm) and 5 feet (152cm) diameter turning space.”

Charging wheelchair batteries is not practical in remote rural areas with unreliable or nonexistent electricity. Heavy, sturdier power wheelchairs are useful on difficult terrain, but a narrow folding chair with push handles is easier for lifting when there are steps or high curbs to navigate. There are third-wheels that can be attached to fronts of chairs to assist with rougher terrain.

How manageable are repairs? If your chair becomes damaged in transit, will you have difficulty getting it fixed in the host country? What kinds of resources are available in your host community?

If you are in the market for a new chair, browse the Related Links for examples of companies that offer manual and power wheelchairs designed to be lightweight, low-maintenance, and easy to assemble. Be sure to check the range per charge if you will be doing a lot of touring or riding in hilly areas.

See Related Links for equipment examples. Mention of an organization, company, service or resource should not be construed as an endorsement by MIUSA/NCDE.

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