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Wheelchair seating
Wheelchair seating

A wheelchair is a mobility device used by people for whom walking is difficult or impossible due to illness or disability.

Basic types:

  • Manual. Wheelchairs that are human powered (by the rider). Also known as "self-propelling". Many are designed so that they can also be pushed by another person.
  • Electric. Usually powered by a rechargeable battery. Some are convertible (by removing the motor and changing the wheels) to manual.
  • Transport chairs. Wheelchairs that can only be pushed by another person, having all four wheels of equal size, usually approximately 8 inches in diameter, instead of two large wheels in the rear (usually approximately 22–24 inches) and two small 8-inch wheels in the front.

It typically consists of a seat and back supported on two large wheels on an axle attached towards the back of the seat and two small wheels near the feet, though there are often small additional features to prevent toppling or to assist mounting curbs. Wheelchairs come in many sizes and colors and can be highly customized, with several options including seat size (width and depth), seat-to-floor height, footrests/leg rests, and much more.

A person moves by pushing with his/her hands circular bars on the outside of the large wheels with a diameter that is slightly less than that of the wheels, or by actuating motors, usually with a joystick.

Experiments have also been made with unusual variant wheels, like the omniwheel or the mecanum wheel. These allow more directional movement options.

Disabled athletes use streamlined sport wheelchairs for sports that require speed and agility, such as basketball, rugby, tennis and racing.

Wheelchair ramp and disabled parking space
Wheelchair ramp and disabled parking space


Powerchairs, or "electric wheelchairs," use electric motors instead of manpower. They are usually powered by rechargeable deep-cycle batteries, similar to those used to power outboard boat engines. The user typically controls speed and direction by operating a joystick similar to that found on video game consoles. Many other input devices can be used if the wheelchair user lacks coordination or dexterity of the hands or fingers or cannot use the hands at all.


A gate for wheelchairs in Hiroshima
A gate for wheelchairs in Hiroshima

Adapting the built environment to make it more accessible to wheelchair users is one of the key campaigns of disability rights movements and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). For example, the construction of low floor trams and buses is being encouraged whereas the use of paternosters in public buildings without any alternative method of transportation has been criticized due to the lack of access for wheelchair users. Modern street furniture design now incorporates better accessibility for people with disabilities.

Notable users

Katie at the CBC Museum
Katie at the CBC Museum


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