I read and reread a wonderful and inspiring interview (Mobility Management, March 2011) with a few of my closest friends and am now inspired to add a little history to the already discussed facts and views about rigid and folding wheelchairs.
Many long years ago, when I was 8 years old, polio was epidemic, similar to cancer today. Rehab, as we know it, was in its infancy, and therapists were, for the most part, unfamiliar with wheelchairs but to move people from place to place.
If lower limbs were too weak for one to stand on, there was little or no rehab at all except to strengthen the muscles that would work in the upper body. Thoughts of independence were foreign at best, and only the least affected and strongest wheelchair users ever attempted leaving their most familiar and secure environments.
A large part of that resistance was the fact that most wheelchairs were made of wood, weighing in the neighborhood of 70 lbs. There were no sizes other than adult sizes, and most of the polio survivors were children at that point.
A New Wheelchair Design
I must say that the most positive part of those chairs was that they were “rigid” or non-folding frames. Transporting wheelchairs of this type was quite a challenge. It took several men to load the chairs into a panel truck or a pickup truck, or to tie them to the roof of a car.
Then the breakthrough came! The cross-brace folding chair was introduced primarily for reasons of transportation.
It was seen as a patient transport chair, just like the wood chairs that preceded these steel X-brace folding frames. It still had nothing to do with personal independence… but there were benefits.
For the veterans who were returning from World War II with spinal cord injuries, it would be possible to fold one’s own chair and “roll” it into the two-door cars of the day. That was done from the passenger side of a car, mostly because the sidewalk provided an easier transfer into the car. Then, with bench seats in cars, the disabled person could slide across, pull the passenger seatback forward, and roll the folded frame steel wheelchair into the car behind the passenger seat — then return the seatback to an upright position, slide back to close the passenger side door, then slide into the driver’s seat to drive.
Various rudimentary style hand controls had started to appear, but automatic transmissions were still very rare.
The Next Breakthrough
For the next 30 years or so, there were very few changes in wheelchair design, except for a few active users who constructed their own brands of chairs.
In 1978, Jeff Minnebraker introduced the Quadra chair to users who were equally active in sports and life in general. The issues were that this chair did not fold in the usual way. Instead, the wheels could be released and removed quickly, and the frame was then light enough to be lifted into a car by the chair user. This was just another way of making a wheelchair compact. It was to become as traditional as the former X-brace folding chair, and is now far more popular for the independent wheelchair user.
The fact that cars these days are much smaller than the behemoths of old, and there are no longer two-door full-sized cars, means the “X-brace” folders really have little place in the life of independent, functional wheelchair users. When frames are in the neighborhood of 10 lbs., and wheels are six or seven, why choose anything other than today’s rigid frame? Far more reasons favor today’s “folding” rigid frames than the traditional “X-brace” folders.
Folding vs. Rigid Designs
In this column, Marty Ball references a Mobility Management March 2011 story called “Clash of the Titans: Folding vs. Rigid.” The story discusses commonly held beliefs about the two ultralightweight chair designs, such as “Folding chairs are more easily transported than rigids” and “Folding chairs offer greater adjustability and flexibility.” Based on interviews from industry experts, the story then draws several conclusions, including “Fit is critical” and “Ditch the stereotypes about who could benefit from rigid chairs.”
An archived version of the original Clash of the Titans story about aluminum vs. titanium ultralight chairs, which originally appeared in MM’s March 2010 issue is also available for reference. — Ed.