How Manual Wheelchairs Work

Wheelchairs are certainly one of the most used mobility aids, serving millions of people worldwide. When it comes to buying a manual wheelchair, buyers can choose from an array of options, including self-propelled, attendant propelled, and even motorised. Designed to meet distinct needs, these mobility aids are available in a number of weight options, ranging from heavy to ultra-lightweight. To ensure proper support and easy movement, users need to choose the correct option according to their needs.

Most manual wheelchairs are self-propelled. These wheelchairs are propelled by turning the wheels by hand, usually by pushing on the round bars that surround the wheels called “push rims.” The handles on the back are used when the user is being pushed by an attendant. When using a manual wheelchair, users can opt to wear fingerless gloves, almost similar to those worn by weightlifters, as a way to protect their fingers from dirt and injury.

The mechanics behind each type or model of manual wheelchair may vary and are continually updated. However, most manual wheelchairs have a similar design. The general manual wheelchair components include push handles, brakes for rear wheels, backrest, armrests, a cushion seat frame, a calf strap footplate, castor wheels (smaller front wheels) and the rear wheels with the push rims attached. The castor wheels on the wheelchair are often overlooked but they play a vital part, they make it possible for the wheelchair to manoeuvre.

Wheelchair Tyre & Brakes

Below are some things you may want to note:


Users need to ensure that their wheelchair is equipped with a braking system that is easy to engage and disengage. This is particularly important as different types of mobility aids come with different types of braking systems. Users who are able to extend their arms may go for the classic pull-on/push-off mechanism; however, those who suffer from upper body weakness and have a limited reach may need a braking system with extension levers.

Rear Tyres

Wheelchairs come with different types of rear tyres for users with diverse needs. For example, those who plan to use the wheelchair on smooth surfaces may opt for air-filled pneumatic tyres. On the other hand, people who wish to use the wheelchair outdoors can opt for a model with puncture resistant tyres. Similarly, patients who want an easy-to-maintain mobility aid can opt for a model with solid tyres.

Here are a few tips on how to work and operate a manual wheelchair:

Moving Forward & Backwards

To propel yourself forward, (reach backwards along the push rims) grip the push rims and push/ move your hands forward. To keep yourself moving forward keep up with the momentum and continue to push the push rims forward.

To propel yourself backwards, reach forward along the push rims and pull backwards.

Hold on to the push rim to manoeuvre

Turning Right or Left

As for turning right or left, place your hand on the push rim of whichever side you want to turn towards and hold (this will hold the wheel on that particular side ie to slow it down/ causing it to become stationary) and with your other hand push the opposite wheel forward.

To turn left, hold the left wheel still and push/ turn the right wheel forward. To turn right, hold the right wheel still and push/ turn the left wheel forward.

If you ever find yourself in a tight corner, you may need to spin on the spot. To do so, push one wheel forward while the other backwards simultaneously.


To stop while in motion, grip the push rims and use friction to slow down. Pinch the push rim with your thumb and index finger. If the wheels are wet, you may need to pinch the tires instead. It is important to note that friction can cause discomfort or even blisters and burns depending on the speed at which you are stopping. If you have come to a halt and intend to stay in that particular spot, put on the brakes to keep the wheelchair from moving about.

In Summary:

Manual wheelchairs work fairly easily, some may say that it is intuitive. By understanding how they work, you can determine if that particular wheelchair is for you. There is a bit of effort and practice needed to manoeuvre yourself around and over time you will get the hang of it. This particular type of wheelchair is and has been one of the more popular if not the most popular design over the years.

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