ATP Series

"Does This Headrest Make Me Look More Disabled?"

Aesthetics are an important consideration in a seating & mobility system, and that’s certainly true for head positioning. Human beings are wired to communicate both verbally and non verbally: We spend a lot of time making eye contact and studying facial expressions. It’s natural to want to look attractive given how much time people spend looking at our faces.

With that in mind, we asked three members of our editorial advisory board if wheelchair users ever declined headrests because of their appearance… and if so, how they responded as healthcare professionals.

From a seating & positioning standpoint, how the patient is positioned and “looks” in their wheelchair is critical. For many patients, their appearance is equally important. Unfortunately, some seating & positioning components are not aesthetically pleasing, but their purpose is to address a medical need. Recommending a piece of equipment that satisfies the medical needs without appearing to be too obtrusive can be a challenge.

Manufacturers strive for that perfect combination of functionality and cosmetic appeal, which is the reason for the money spent on product design.

I think we have all heard from many of our patients that they would like to be seen as the person and not as the wheelchair. Those components that can extend beyond the body dimensions, like a headrest, need to be as functional and as inconspicuous as possible. We have used a variety of headrest pads with removable hardware in different dimensions that seem smaller or non-existent when viewed from the front, but are still in place for positioning as needed, and that has worked well for our patients.

— Rick Graver, ATP, President, Medtech Services, Reno, Nev.

I definitely have seen higher-functioning individuals not want to use a headrest. They have said they feel it makes them look more disabled, and they also say it frequently gets in the way getting into personal vehicles so they end up removing it permanently. Generally, unless their functional mobility is aff ected, people tend to want the least amount of support… no laterals, lower backs, etc. The less support you have, to them, the less disabled they look.

That said, we usually do more education. Most of the individuals who don’t use a headrest are not tilting/reclining enough to get good pressure relief. When we explain the importance of pressure relief and have them tilt/recline to the necessary amount, they do say that they would use the headrest.

— Lauren Rosen, PT, MPT, MSMS, ATP/SMS, Motion Analysis Center Program Coordinator, St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital of Tampa

One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing kids in wheelchairs with gigantic headrests (I say they look like elephant ears)! Since my background is with kids, they often don’t complain about the “appearance” of the headrest, but I do know that this is a concern in the adult population.

— Amy Morgan, PT, ATP, National Clinical Education Manager, Permobil

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Mobility Management.

Rolling Dynamics, Rolling Resistance &  Optimizing Wheeled Prosthetics