So I am super passionate about disability rep in writing. I wrote this up a while ago, so here is a big info post on wheelchairs!
I would love any insights from other wheelchair users, and am also happy to answer any specific questions people have about wheelchairs or other assistive devices!
Disclaimer: This is not a post on how to write disability in general. This is a post on how to write wheelchairs. I have limited experience myself. I am a young, part-time wheelchair user with a high backed, manual wheelchair. I've also worked with a lot of wheelchairs users for a living, most of whom have more complex wheelchairs.
I recommend using this to get a vague idea about the type of wheelchair type you want to write, then do your own research on personal experiences of that disability, model types, etc. If you’re a wheelchair user who wants to correct my facts or language, please do.
To simplify, I’m breaking wheelchairs into 3 basic types: Low Backed, High Backed, and Electric. This doesn’t cover everything, but I think is a helpful way to look at it to start out.
Low Backed Wheelchair
Who uses this –
Almost exclusively long term wheelchair users and people who began using a wheelchair young. People with good upper body strength but limited leg use. Lower body paralysis, no legs, or long term leg damage.
The low back means movement relies on core support and arm strength. They often don’t have handles or arm rests and are build with a light frame. They are most likely to have a wide camber (see terms), and you’ll rarely see them being propelled by an assistant. Because they’re made for long term self propulsion, they are the most likely type of wheelchair to be seen as a part of the user rather than a device. Since they’re usually built for lower body centered conditions, this is also the wheelchair you’re least likely to see somebody ‘stand out of’, though it’s not impossible. For example, somebody with partial sensation in their legs, irregular leg usage, or a leg injury that makes walking painful, might prefer this chair.
I’ve heard these called “more realistic” wheelchairs because of their ease and practicality, but they are best suited to a very specific slice of the wheelchair using population. That slice, however, encompasses a great number of people who use a wheelchair young and long term (so are more likely to see themselves as a wheelchair user rather than someone who used them for a bit or aged into one) and of the disabilities most popular to show in media. Many people’s go to for a wheelchair using character is somebody with a spinal injury or without legs, yet it’s annoyingly uncommon to see practical, low backed wheelchairs for these characters.
Especially if you are writing an action story, you should seriously consider if your character would use one of these.
Built for easy and natural movement that engages the muscles. They are light and easy to move in.
As mentioned, unless your character’s reason for needing a wheelchair is limited to their lower body, these chairs are probably not practical. Full body conditions such as genetic issues with joints or bones, old age, and many other conditions mean the user probably does not have the core support or arm strength to use a low back wheelchair. The fact that they are rarely built for easy assistance adds to this, since many wheelchair users can’t wheel themselves long distances or through difficult obstacles, if at all.
They also tend to run pricier than high backed wheelchairs since they’re made for more intense and long term use.
Since many low backed wheelchair users are active and athletic, there are many sport variations. This could include a light weight focus, ability to make sharp turns, treads made for mountain roads, and countless other sport specific models. There are also ultralight models made for easy travel.
Somebody might have one wheelchair geared to their passion, or multiple wheelchairs, one for day to day use, and one or more for different sports or environments.
High Backed Wheelchair
Who uses this -
The most universal wheelchair and easy to find cheap is a high backed wheelchair with handles. These are the wheelchairs you’ll probably be given if you break or leg or land in the hospital, as well as the most likely to use in old age, but are also used by people with limited lower body use, balance issues, and many other issues.
This wheelchair offers more support for the arms and back while still allowing self propulsion. Since it is fairly simple and neutral, it is also much easier to find cheap, though long term wheelchair users will want to spring for a durable and comfortable model. People who aren’t used to using a wheelchair (like recent injuries) or don’t use it full time enough to build the muscles (like people who use wheelchairs for long trips) also tend to prefer these because they offer both the independence of self mobility, and easy handles to have a friend or caretaker step in when you get tired.
Just like these have some of the advantages of both, they don’t have the specialization of either. People who tire easily will struggle to push themselves, especially since they can run bulky. They are often less designed for comfortable, long-term use, and overwhelming for temporary use. Many people who use these chairs simply don’t have access to the chair they want, and either would do better with a lower strain electric chair that would give them more energy and independence, or a lighter weight, handle-less chair they could use full time. They are often cheaply built, and the lack of price and specialization can make people assume a disability is temporary or even fake, which can be embarrassing or dangerous.
Because these are both manual and easy to push, they are also most likely to have strangers moving you without permission, either to “help” or for their own convenience, hanging groceries on you, and generally treated you as furniture.
Since I’m using this category to represent a “basic” wheelchair, there aren’t many special models, but there is probably the largest range of quality. While the other two are almost consistently expensive and high quality, these can range from 40$ to well in the thousands.
Who uses this
Electronic wheelchairs are used by people who have both upper an lower mobility problems. This can include people with joint and muscle issues, higher spine paralysis, and many other disabilities. Due to price, they are almost exclusively used by long term wheelchair users, not people with temporary injuries.
For many people, manual wheelchairs are painful or impossible to use. Electronic wheelchairs provide a way for a much larger segment of the population to have mobility. Pushing a wheelchair takes a lot of strength and energy, especially up hills, non-smooth flooring, and long trips. Manual wheelchairs are often controlled with simple hand motions. They can be designed to be moved with incredibly limited hand motion, or even tongue motion if the user has no hand mobility.
The main problem with electronic wheelchairs is cost. Disabled people are, on average, lower income. Though some have successful careers, other people can’t work or are overwhelmed in medical bills. Electric wheelchairs are, at minimum, well over 700$, but are usually closer to 2-4K$. Repairs can also be very expensive, and there is the risk of no one in your area having the parts or knowledge.
They also tend to be larger and harder to navigate around tight corners. They often do not have the tilt to make it over curbs. The bulk also makes them difficult to transport. Few are foldable, and they often need a specialized van to transport. They need power to function. Most users know how to keep their chair charged, but there is still that face that carelessness or a malfunction can leave you stuck in a very expensive chair.
They also are difficult to push, so if the user can’t operate the controls, a manual wheelchair is more practical.
The range of electronic wheelchairs is huge. Some look almost like a manual wheelchair, others look more like mobility scooters. Since many people who use electronic wheelchairs have more physically limiting disabilities, they need a range of functions to specialize to different needs. As mentioned earlier, controls vary depending on the user’s hand use. Along with paralysis, this could be because of conditions like arthritis, lack of fine motor control, or joints sensitive to even light pressure.
Electronic wheelchairs often need more support, and some even strap users who might not have the ability to hold themselves upright in the chair.
More expensive electronic wheelchairs are being designed that can climb curbs and stairs, new types of controls, and different types of support.
There are also some variations designed specifically for children, often with brighter designs or made to look like strollers.
Money and Time
Not everyone has the exact wheelchair they need. Many people can’t afford a lightweight or electric wheelchair, and many people, regardless of disability, will use a basic hospital wheelchair. You should take into account not just your character’s dream wheelchair, but the wheelchair they could find. Did they have to cobble it together in the apocalypse, or is it space age tech? Did they design their dream wheelchair and have it custom built, or take what they could get at a thrift store for 30$? Bargain hunting can get you a decent, used wheelchair for a bit over 100$, most types of electric wheelchair run well into the thousands. If your story is set in the real world, what they would be covered by insurance otherwise available will also vary.
Recently disabled people may also not have had the time or resources to find the right chair for them. Somebody waking up from their coma probably hasn’t ordered their electronic wheelchair yet. In fact, they may need time to judge the extent of their disability before making those choices. They could have a progressive disability, or they could be hoping to regain functionality or strength. Somebody might even procrastinate on getting the wheelchair they need to avoid admitting the extent of their condition.
Parts and Customization (A lot of these only apply to manual wheelchairs)
Camber – Low back wheelchairs often have their wheels tilted out. Sports wheelchairs will rarely not have them. These help prevent tipping, allowing faster speeds and tighter turns, but they do make the wheelchair wider, which can make it harder to get through tight spaces and fold. Some wheelchairs have adjustable camber so they can be adjusted for the user’s preference and circumstance.
Wheel Lock – Manual wheelchairs usually have brakes. These are most often tiny handles that can be pushed over the wheels to hold them still. Some have back lock so they stay in place without a pusher. (My airline’s wheelchairs have them and I despise it)
Handles – As mentioned earlier, handles are great for if you want somebody else to push for a bit, not as great if the guy behind you just decided you need help or are blocking their way to the honey nut cheerios. Many wheelchairs have a bar, rather than two handles.
Anti-Tip Devices – These go on the bottom of your wheelchair to make it so the wheelchair can only go so far back. On slopes, wheelchairs can start to fall, especially if the user doesn’t lean forward to shift the balance. Many people prefer not to use these, however, because tipping back is how you get over curbs. You can’t pop a wheelie if you can’t lean back, which can mean having to go blocks to find a flat curb transition, or not being able to get into a space at all.
Footrests- Most are removable, and some people only use them while out and about, if at all, using their feet to balance or move around. They are usually, though not always, separate. They can be padded.
Gloves – When using a manual wheelchair, it’s a good idea to have gloves for extra grip. These are most helpful for slowing down to avoid sudden stops or while going downhill. You can use yoga gloves or other gripped gloves, but most people get special, fingerless wheelchair gloves. They also prevent all the junk you get on your hands from the wheel touching them.
Wheel vs Handrim – Visually, it’s important to remember manual wheels have two layers. The wheel itself is usually softer plastic and touches the ground. The inner handrim is where the user turns the wheel, and is made of the same metal or hard plastic of the main chair.
Decoration – There are plenty of ways to decorate a wheelchair, bright wraps, cushions, wraps around the metal, etc. I have flowers in my back pocket. However, all added weight is more weight to push, and some people find decoration gaudy or feel it draws unwanted attention.
Swag- There is also a lot of custom things to make wheelchairs more functional. Remember that manual pushing needs both hands so you can’t, for example, hold your coffee and move at the same time (I have done a lot of scooting along with a chai between my knees). You can get cupholders, backpacks, and even gunholders made for a wheelchair. It’s also not difficult for somebody with basic crafting skills to make even more specialized gear.
Clothing – Clothing is usually made to walk in, not to sit in, and many wheelchair users have gripes with common clothing. Beyond the clothing needs of different disabilities (pants with one leg, shirts that fit people with dwarfism, etc), many of you have probably noticed sitting down can produce a frustrating amount of buttcrack. Somebody who sits all day might go in for a pair of pants designed to wrap around a seated butt, or shirts with a cut for sitting. Since it’s rarer, however, it’s $$$.
Trays- Trays are bulky, but provide not just comfort, but safety for people who might seize or tip forward. They can be padded.
Belts- Users can be belted into a chair to prevent sliding forward, or to be safer downhill or in a car.
If you’re writing sci-fi or the very wealthy, you can play more with what’s possible. Here’s some of the exciting things going on in wheelchair tech!
Comfort and Weight – It’s simple, but this is the eternal quest of wheelchairs. Lighter weight material, making electric wheelchairs with less bulk, longer battery life. These things can make a huge difference.
Gyroscopic wheelchair!This is one of the new ones I’m super excited about. It’s a wheelchair for people with strong upper bodies operated more like a segway, where the core is used to move instead of the hands. It leaves the hands free and helps the user keep core strength.
Curb navigation. The biggest problem of wheelchairs is that a low step can ruin somebody’s entire day. Hovering wheelchairs! Wheelchairs that can climb! The technology is still expensive and in progress, but this will make a much easier future for disabled people.
More specialized wheelchairs. A lot of these are available in demo, but not widely available. Underwater wheelchairs, beach wheelchairs, and so forth are all super cool. Consider what your story might need. How do they get around in space?
Exoskeletons. A lot of people see exoskeletons as the future of disabled people, but I caution against using this too much. First, because it’s not relatable. There are very few wheelchair users in media. It’s nice to see people who look like you. Unless it’s a bulky, limited exoskeleton, they feel like the author wanting to credit of writing a disabled character, without the effort of writing a disabled character. Second, exoskeletons wouldn’t work for anyone. I use a wheelchair for heart problems that make it hard for me to be upright. I don’t need leg support, I need to be able to sit.
Remember if it can be easily 'fixed’ in the future… it no longer functions as a disability, just like people who would have been almost blind 500 years ago don’t consider themselves 'disabled’ because they wear glasses or had eye surgery as a child.
Wheelchairs by planet. Gravity makes a difference in both muscle and cardio strength (yes, I know, the heart is a muscle). Somebody might walk on the moon and use a wheelchair on earth. Maybe the whole cast needs wheelchairs on Jupiter.
Do’s and Don'ts
-Show community. People in wheelchairs tend to find other people in wheelchairs. It’s not as if all my friends are disabled, but it’s nice to talk to other people who understand sometimes. My friends also know about my disability. My fiance gripes about ADA law, my close friends know how to push my chair. I think it’s particularly important because anybody might become disabled suddenly, and there’s often a sense of isolation and hopelessness. Stories often focus on that isolation and don’t show the community a wheelchair gives you.
-Customize! The chair tells you about the person. That’s what this whole post is about! Do they have a crappy old wheelchair and a handgun in a fannypack? Do they paint little flowers on it and have donut hubcaps? Do they have a cute unicorn bag with a handgun?
-Think about motion. Can they reach the things they need? Do you show them leaning forward to go uphill? Do you know how they’d move onto a bed? Look at pictures, watch videos, do the same things you should do writing anyone else if you don’t know how a motion works. You can even just sit in your own chair and try motions yourself to get a feel for how you might hug somebody or draw a gun.
-Write romance. People in wheelchairs can fall in love and, more importantly, are worthy of being loved. If you write the kind of story where people have sex, don’t be afraid to write wheelchair users having active sex lives.
-Consider alternatives. I don’t think I’ve seen a single fictional character who uses arm crutches or a walker. The best device for your character might be something you haven’t considered.
-Research history! Historical wheelchairs exist, and they look really different from modern ones. Stephan Farffler’s wheelchair is awesome to learn about.
-Show variation. Perhaps your character who uses a cane might prefer a wheelchair for a long trip. Perhaps your character who uses a wheelchair might use a cane around the house. Perhaps your superhero has a different wheelchair for fighting crime vs everyday vs their hiking trips.
-Write a character first, a disabled character second. Ask “how would their wheelchair affect them”, not “how do wheelchair people act”.
-Remember bodytype. If you never use your legs, those muscles start to atrophy. It can also be harder to stay in shape, so a lot of people tend to gain more weight. And using a manual wheelchair gets your arms buff AF.
-Use the chair as a symbol of entrapment. When I first got in a wheelchair, I couldn’t stop laughing. It was so easy to move. My wheelchair gives me freedom. It’s a joy, not a trap. People who have just had an accident may have a worse relationship with their wheelchair, but in general, wheelchairs are about freedom, not restraint.
-Speaking of which, empty wheelchairs in creepy hospitals is cheap. Empty wheelchairs to show that somebody is free is terrible. And stop saying “wheelchair bound”. Are you leg bound? Car bound? Did I enter a dark pact with it? Am I tied to it?
-That said, don’t worry too much about language. Most people won’t care if you ask them to 'take a walk’ or 'make a stand’ for something. People awkwardly trying to talk around it is much worse.
-No magical healing. It sucks hardcore. You finally read somebody like you and the writer goes “nah, people like you aren’t actually worth writing about. I fixed them”. It’s like finding water in the desert and having somebody dump it out. This also goes for revealing they’re actually a mermaid or centaur or could walk all along.
-Cut the inspirational shit. Don’t use people in wheelchairs to make other people feel better about their lives. Don’t use them to make your main character look good. People in wheelchairs aren’t props to show your character is so nice, they’d have a friend in a wheelchair or gasp date a character in a wheelchair. There’s the nasty implication that people do disabled people a favor by being willing to see past their horrible flaw, or that we’re pity projects. Being friends with me isn’t a heroic sacrifice. I’m fucking awesome.
-There’s enough disabled villains. It’s not that you can never write them, but consider writing some heroic disabled characters first, and why your first instinct that a person in a wheelchair should be pathetic or evil.
-Minor one, but wheelchairs have weight limits. Sitting on somebody’s lap in a wheelchair to kiss them isn’t cute, it’s concerning.
Anyway, I love wheelchairs. I love my wheelchair. I love stories where I get to see other people in wheelchairs, so if you have questions ask away.