Last year in our discussion on ultralightweight manual chairs, it was aluminum vs. titanium. This year, we turn the spotlight on design. Historically, ultralight frame designs have been divided into two categories: rigid or folding. And historically, each type of design has been credited with being “better” than the other type in certain situations.
But given advances in technology, we wondered: Are these assumptions still true? Were they ever? And are the two designs now more alike than they are different?
We asked experts on ultralightweight design and manufacturing — several of whom are also ultralightweight chair users — to weigh in:
- Josh Anderson, VP of marketing, TiLite
- Jim Black, marketing manager, Top End
- Brent Hatch, director of product management/adult manual, and Christy Shimono, senior product manager, Sunrise Medical
- Rick Hayden, VP of North American sales, Colours Wheelchair
- Doug Munsey, president, Ki Mobility
Assumption #1: Folding Chairs Are More Easily Transported than Rigids
Traditionally, this is assumed to be the biggest benefit of a folding chair: that a crossbrace enabling the chair to fold vertically makes a folding chair easier to transport than a rigid chair, which has a main frame that cannot be collapsed.
Multiple experts noted that a clarification of “folding” is needed.
Josh Anderson points out some of today’s rigid chairs have folding backs, “and you even have folding backs on folding chairs.”
This story categorizes chairs based on whether or not the frame folds — though the fact that some rigid chairs now have folding backs speaks to the overall design evolution of all ultralightweight chairs.
Says Jim Black: “In the old days, when the folding chair was designed, it was designed to put into a car to transport it. It was an easier way to put it into a trunk. But a typical user today is probably more efficient in their products and more apt to put their products in their cars themselves or have somebody who can put the chair in the car. So transportation isn’t as big an issue as it was 20 years ago.”
Black adds that changes to rigid chair design — including that folding back — have made rigid chairs much more transportable.
Anderson says, “I think the advent of the quick-release axle was a huge turning point, because now you can pull the rear wheels off (a rigid chair). A lot of times today, you can fold the back down, and (a rigid) chair is more compact than a folding chair.”
Christy Shimono says the assumption that folding chairs were automatically more transportable may have been flawed, anyway.
“Way back in the day, (we’d say) this is a folding chair, and this one doesn’t fold, and it really made people say, ‘Oh, I can’t have that.’ I think that was a poor analogy, because both (designs) are portable in their own way.”
Shimono also suggests that clinical considerations are crucial to the transportability discussion.
“It really comes down to clinical,” she says. “You might think this person (is appropriate for) a folding chair, but then you find out they don’t have the upper-body strength to fold and pull the entire product in (to the car). They might be better off breaking the frame down, taking the wheels off and putting it in. You might have somebody with Guillain-Barre — they’re very active, but their hand function is really limited, and they might not be able to pull that wheel off. So I always like to be very cautious.”
Our experts’ consensus: While folding chairs have traditionally won hearts and minds on the transportability issue, that assumption is outdated.
“The folding frame will consist of an X brace and often a footrest that swings away and can be removed,” says Rick Hayden. “So to transport, you remove the footrest and fold the frame. A rigid frame is a solid, one-piece frame that to transport, you remove the rear wheels and fold down the back if necessary. In a nutshell, rigid frames have reached the point where they are as convenient or more convenient to transport than a folding frame.” He also points out that there’s an overall weight savings with rigid chairs vs. folding chairs: “Rigid frame wheelchairs are lighter in weight due to fewer bolt-on parts.”
And that “lifting weight” — the weight of the chair as it’s being lifted in and out of the car — is important, Black says. “Weight is a very small component to the whole thing, but yes — lifting weight is going to be an issue. Generally when people fold chairs up to put them in the car, they leave the wheels on. So the lifting weight is increased.”
In contrast, users of rigid chairs typically take the wheels off their chairs before putting them into the car. That means that in addition to the rigid chair weighing less to begin with, the lifting weight of the frame is further reduced because the wheels are off.
Assumption #2: Folding Chairs Offer Greater Adjustability& Flexibility
Rigid frames, by their very nature, are typically custom built for a particular user. Folding chairs are modular — as Black describes, “You have a front frame section, a rear frame section and generally, a crossbrace.” Modular pieces are offered in a range of sizes, typically in 1″ increments, while rigid chairs can provide more customized fits — which can result in smaller footprints.
Anderson is 6’9″ and uses a rigid chair without a folding back. “Using myself as an example, if you have somebody who’s very big, you can use a rigid chair and put that rigid chair into a very compact spot,” he says.
In that way, customized rigid chairs can be considered more flexible in sizing, since they can more exactly fit their users. In comparison, a folding chair user may have to accept a chair that’s a little bigger than he needs it to be.
On the other hand, folding chairs can be more adjustable when it comes to options and accessories, says Doug Munsey.
“There are many, many more options available for a folding chair,” he notes. “There’s more things you can do with them: more armrest options available, more caster options available, more foot positions. On a rigid chair, it’s welded custom; it is what it is. So the frame can’t be modular, it can’t be changed. You can change what their seat dump is, their positioning. But you can’t change the width of the frame.”
That can be a critical consideration especially among new ultralight users.
“Spinal cord-injured people in particular tend to lose weight over their first year, because they’re not doing activities so well,” Munsey says. “They may have been 180 lbs. when they were injured — a year later, they could be 150 lbs., and could continue to lose weight. They’re going to need a smaller chair.”
“There are things that a folding chair has that not every rigid chair has, like swing-away hangers,” Shimono says. “For the most part, you’re more limited in accessories on a rigid chair.”
“Seating accessories have historically been built around and designed for folders,” Munsey says, noting that such accessories typically accommodate 1″ tubing, which is what folding chairs commonly use. “Rigid chairs, the custom-welded nature of it, allows for a more individual fit, a more exacting fit. Not that it’s exact, but it’s closer. Folding chairs are modular so you’re limited to, for K0005s, 1″ increments in a variety of dimensions, not just width and depth. People don’t come in 1″ increments, but the chairs do.”
Says Brent Hatch about the common belief that folding chairs are more adjustable, “I think traditionally, that’s a pretty true statement — that you see development around folding chairs in the positioning and the amount of adjustability. But I think you can find that for the most part, there’s a good amount of adjustability in the rigid chairs out there, too.”
Shimono agrees: “I certainly think there’s a lot of change happening with new injuries, certainly in the first six months to a year, maybe even longer. Historically at times, a folding chair would give you the modularity to change frame length or depth. But we shouldn’t categorically say there isn’t a lot of adjustability to rigid chairs. It goes back to what may be changing in the user. Certainly a lot of rigid chairs out there can adapt to changes.”
Anderson says the notion of a lack of adjustability in rigid chairs is simply outdated. “If you go back to the initial Everest & Jennings rigid chairs, they had zero adjustability. I think that’s where a lot of that mentality comes from: ‘I can’t put a new user into that because it doesn’t have the adjustability.’ There’s still this misconception that a folding chair has more adjustability. That whole aspect of ‘If I want to have a fully adjustable chair, I need to go with a folding chair’ just doesn’t exist anymore. It doesn’t apply.”
Assumption #3: Rigid Chairs Provide a Better Ride
Rigid chairs may be improving in areas such as adjustability and transportability, but their main claim to fame has always been the ride. Much of that claim is simple physics based on the design of a rigid frame.
“A rigid frame design is more energy efficient due to fewer moving frame components,” Hayden says.
“A rigid chair is just that — it’s more rigid,” Anderson says. “The transfer of energy is more efficient because with a folding chair, you have that crossbrace, technically. I say ‘technically’ because some folding chairs use different types of crossbrace mechanisms. But typically with a rigid chair, it’s more rigid so it’s more efficient to propel. There’s a better transfer of energy. They’re more efficient to propel because you don’t have all the flexing of the different components.”
That means that when a user pushes a rigid chair, more of that energy is translated into propulsion, versus a folding chair, in which some of the energy is lost.
With a folding chair, Shimono says, “because you need to collapse that chair, one way or another you’re going to have things that are absorbing some of the energy that you put into the push.”
That leads to a bigger question: Physicswise, folding chairs are going to surrender more energy than a typical high-quality rigid chair because folding chairs have more moving parts. But is there a big enough difference in the ride for the average user to really notice? Or are users’ ride preferences based on other factors?
Yes…and yes, our experts said.
Asked if people truly notice ride differences between rigid and folding frames, Munsey said, “I think they do. I also think people get used to whatever it is they’re sitting in. They acclimate to it, so it becomes less of an issue. If you get sneakers, you may not be buying the very best sneakers, but you feel pretty good in them. Then you go try a really great pair of sneakers, and you feel, ‘Whoa, these are great.’ But two weeks later, you don’t necessarily feel it any more. You acclimate to whatever it is that you’re using.”
Anderson started using a wheelchair as a young teenager, when he says, “The level of technology was not nearly where it is today.” He had two chairs, a rigid and a folding. He started out in the folding chair and used it for a few weeks. After that, he started using his rigid chair. “I never went back into the folding chair,” he says, adding that even when traveling overseas, he uses his everyday rigid chair.
Black used a folding chair for a year, then switched to a rigid chair. “The ride of a folding chair, to me, never felt good,” he says. “It never felt right to me.”
He acknowledges friends who prefer folding chairs, “but for me, it’s more cumbersome,” he says. “That’s a preference at that point. I think everybody should be in rigid. That’s not the case, but I’m just being honest. It’s what I believe.”
Hatch agrees that personal preference — and personal comfort zones — play a huge role in which type of chair an individual consumer uses.
“Once you become comfortable, once your life’s routines are set up around that — you now have a folding chair with a swingaway hanger, and you access the bathroom, the toilet, and you’ve done that for 15 or 20 years — those things all play into your decision- making.”
Conclusion #1: Fit Is Critical
So if some of the most commonly held assumptions about folding and rigid frames are actually untrue given technological advances, can we draw new assumptions for ultralightweight designs?
Apparently so. And the top opinion of our experts is that — assuming that clinicians and complex rehab providers are working with high-quality folding and rigid chairs — the fit of the chair is ultimately the most important factor in determining success or failure.
“The first thing you need to do is have the right fit,” Anderson says. “Because everything else doesn’t matter if you don’t. I don’t think we can say enough about the fit of the chair because that is really just absolutely critical, whether you’re talking about a rigid or folding chair.”
He defines that “right fit” as including “getting that rear wheel in the right position, getting that caster in the right spot, having the footrest wide enough that your legs get in easily, but don’t flop around. All of these things make such a difference. The stability of the individual is based off of that fit of the chair.”
“Along with the understanding of the rigid and folding mechanisms and how that may or may not put more rolling resistance in the chair, the setup is also key,” Hatch says. The selection of the right wheels, the center of gravity — all of those things are highly important to optimize the ride. And both, if they’re missed — whether it’s folding or rigid, it doesn’t help the user either way. We hear a lot of our sales force, our clinicians, our ATPs talking about selecting the right caster, the position of the caster, the rear wheel setup to help customize that performance.”
“As with most things in our industry, the key is the prescription,” Munsey says. “It’s the seating team getting people what they need and making sure that not only do the dimensions fit the person, but that the chair fits the environment and the circumstances that they have to live in. It’s the seating team that is still the key.”
Conclusion #2: Ditch the Stereotypes About Who Could Benefit from Rigid Chairs
Yes, some users who could choose a rigid chair prefer folding chairs instead.
“I see them all the time,” Anderson says. “And that’s just fine.”
What’s not fine, our experts noted, is that too many consumers currently aren’t given the option of choosing a rigid chair — or in some cases, even an ultralight chair.
Black references as an example “a CVA client, somebody with a stroke, and they have a typical K0004 wheelchair that’s generally folding — almost 100 percent (of the time). And they set the person in the chair, and they’re just sitting in it — they’re not building the chair around the user, it’s a modular product.
“To create efficiency for that elderly client who’s had a stroke, you need to make (the chair) more efficient. A rigid chair would be a better solution; to have a wheel to move fore and aft would be a better solution for them. But the way our outdated Medicare system is, you’ll never see that in this world. You’ll never see them in a more efficient product, where they need to be. It’s hard to set up a folding chair to be as efficient for them and their lifestyle. A lot more people will be more efficient in a rigid frame.”
Asked if he’d like to see more geriatric clients given the opportunity to use rigid chairs, Black replies, “Bariatric, geriatric, pediatric — absolutely, 100 percent. It’s all about building a chair around the person. You’re not going to buy a bike that’s too big for your kid. You’re going to buy a bike that fits them for safety reasons, for health and wellness. It’s efficiency. We’re the only industry that puts in all these other parameters: growth, you have to have this product for five years. What about the user? How do you make him more efficient? How do you stop him from having a repetitive injury? How do you stop that from happening? It all stems from the fit of that product, if it’s rigid or folding. But if you do it right the first time, you should be OK.”
In talking about how rigid chairs can answer a wide range of client needs, Hayden notes the example of a client named Pete, a wheelchair athlete with arthrogryposis: “Pete has little to no hip, knee or ankle flexion. Therefore to play competitive wheelchair basketball would be unheard of in a folding frame design. With a rigid frame design, the chair could be modified enough to accommodate his sitting posture to allow Pete access to the sport he loves to play. Pete has played competitive wheelchair basketball all over the world and coaches the sport as well.”
Hayden adds, “From a performance standpoint, the rigid design has always been superior due to the increased energy efficiency and custom frame configurations.” Those are benefits, multiple experts agree, that deserve to be made available to more clients.
Conclusion #3: Technological Advances Are Improving Both Folding & Rigid Designs
Perhaps the best news of all is that technological advances — in design, engineering and manufacturing materials — are benefiting both types of ultralight frames.
Says Shimono, “What we can do to lighten the chairs up can only benefit those in folding chairs as well as rigid chairs. Being able to look at different styles or ways to fold the chair, different styles of crossbraces, different things like that: We learn from one and translate to the other.”
Hatch says, “I would agree with that. There will be changes in technology, but we strongly believe that the product and the clinical adapting of the product, whether it’s rigid or folding, meets our standards and what our users are asking for, so at the end of the day, if someone says, ‘I’m going to go folding,’ I support that 100 percent, if they’ve talked to their clinician, and that’s what’s best for them… I don’t foresee a point in the short future that we’re selling only one style of chair.”
Munsey agrees that among high-quality ultralight chairs, rigid and folding designs are improving to the point where they are becoming more and more alike.
“There’s more creativity coming out for non-traditional crossbraces that would lock out and be even more efficient,” he points out. “There are new ways to do folding chairs that would be efficient. Folding chairs are getting better.
“Ten to 15 years ago, rigid chair users were 20- to 30-year-old spinal cord-injured people who didn’t use (armrests) and didn’t need any accessories other than the frame and wheels. Today, more and more people are using those chairs and demanding more accessories, features and options. Rigid chairs have been expanding what you can do with them. So (the designs) are meeting in the middle.”