If you – or someone you care for – have difficulty moving around, you might benefit from using a wheelchair.
For many people, a wheelchair can bring freedom and independence.
This introductory guide is all about the types of wheelchair available, and how to get one (whether you get a wheelchair on the NHS, or hire, buy or borrow one).
On this page:
- Do I need a wheelchair?
- Types of wheelchair
- How wide is a standard wheelchair?
- How to get a wheelchair
Do I need a wheelchair?
The decision to use a wheelchair is different for every wheelchair user.
You might be told by your doctor or physiotherapist that you or your child need to use a wheelchair. Alternatively, you might decide to raise it with your doctor yourself if you’ve been falling a lot or if moving around is causing you a lot of pain or tiredness.
You may be able to get a wheelchair from the NHS if you need to use it full-time, or occasionally if you only need it part-time. Find out more about getting a wheelchair on the NHS.
Deciding that you or your child need a wheelchair is the first step. Keep reading to find out more about how to choose a wheelchair that’s right for you.
Types of wheelchair
When choosing a wheelchair, there are a lot of different factors to think about.
For example, do you or the person you’re caring for:
- Want to move independently in the wheelchair, or be pushed?
- Need to use the wheelchair full-time or part-time?
- Need to be able to travel with the wheelchair?
- Mostly plan to use the chair indoors or outdoors (or both)?
It’s also important to consider your budget, and any particular features that you need the wheelchair to have.
You should always speak to your doctor or another professional to get their advice on choosing a wheelchair.
This is a brief guide to some types of wheelchair that are available, to help you get thinking.
Manual wheelchairs are wheelchairs that are pushed along by hand. This could be by the person using the wheelchair, or someone else.
Manual wheelchairs are often used both by people who need a wheelchair full-time, and those who need a wheelchair some of the time.
They are generally lighter and easier to travel with than electric wheelchairs.
Manual wheelchairs can be either self-propelled or attendant-propelled.
Self-propelled wheelchairs are designed to be pushed along by the wheelchair user themself.
This usually means that they have “push rims” – an extra rim on each wheel, which the user can grab onto and use to push forward.
Some also come with push handles at the back of the wheelchair, so that you can be pushed by someone else if you choose.
Attendant-propelled wheelchairs are manual wheelchairs that are made to be pushed along by someone else.
They usually have smaller wheels and no push rims, which makes them a bit less bulky and easier to move around.
Electric wheelchairs are powered by an electric motor, so they don’t have to be pushed.
They are sometimes called power wheelchairs, or motorised wheelchairs.
They are helpful for people who need to use a wheelchair most of the time, or take long journeys.
They also offer independence to those who don’t have the upper body strength for a self-propelled wheelchair.
All-terrain wheelchairs are durable wheelchairs that are designed to handle challenging outdoor environments. They can be manual or electric.
This type of wheelchair can offer more freedom to outdoor explorers who want to take their wheelchair onto grass or sand, for example.
They can be quite bulky and difficult to use indoors.
Active wheelchairs are used by people who play sports, or want to have a fuller range of movement.
They are self-propelled manual wheelchairs, but they are usually much lighter than standard wheelchairs.
They are often quite aerodynamic, without features like a foot rest or push handles that could get in the way when taking part in sports.
Lightweight, transit and folding wheelchairs
Lightweight wheelchairs are lighter versions of wheelchairs, which could be ideal for you if you travel a lot and need something easier to transport. They can be manual or electric.
Transit wheelchairs are small, lightweight wheelchairs that are used to help travel short distances. For example, a staff member at the airport might offer you a transit wheelchair to use while boarding the plane. They are usually attendant-propelled manual wheelchairs.
Foldable wheelchairs are also ideal for travellers, or anyone with limited space. They can be neatly folded away into a cupboard or the boot of a car.
How wide is a standard wheelchair?
Every wheelchair is different. It’s important to find the wheelchair that is the right fit for you.
On average, you can expect a wheelchair to be about 25 inches wide. But every make and model varies.
What is a bariatric wheelchair?
Bariatric wheelchairs are wheelchairs that are made to suit larger people who need a wheelchair with wider dimensions.
They can also usually carry more weight than a standard wheelchair.
How to get a wheelchair
Deciding where and how to get your wheelchair can be confusing. There are a lot of options to consider, depending on your needs and your budget.
The main routes to consider are: getting a wheelchair on the NHS, hiring one or buying one.
You may also be able to get support from a charitable organisation.
Can I get a wheelchair on the NHS?
If you need a wheelchair, you may be able to get one for free from the NHS. Most people who need a wheelchair full-time can get one on the NHS.
Start by speaking to your GP, doctor, physiotherapist or another healthcare professional. They should be able to refer you to your local wheelchair service.
The exact process will differ depending on where you live. You might have to wait a few weeks for your assessment.
The wheelchair service will assess you to confirm that you need a wheelchair, and what type would be best for you.
The assessment will look at your home, mobility needs, lifestyle and abilities.
If the NHS gives you a wheelchair, it will technically be on loan from them (rather than owned by you). The NHS will be responsible for its upkeep and repairs.
You might be allocated a personal wheelchair budget to put towards buying a wheelchair.
If you disagree with the decision made by your local wheelchair service, you might want to seek support from the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS). They can give you information and advice about your options.
If you’re the parent of a child who needs a wheelchair, and your local NHS wheelchair service can’t provide what they need, you can apply to the charity Whizz Kidz for a wheelchair. You could also apply to the charity Wizzybug for a free power chair.
Where to hire a wheelchair
There are a few different reasons why you might choose to hire a wheelchair. You might consider this option if you only need the chair for a short time.
For example, you or the person you care for might need to use a wheelchair temporarily following surgery or an injury.
You might also consider wheelchair rental if you would prefer to hire an electric wheelchair rather than get a manual one on the NHS.
Some options for where to hire a wheelchair include:
- The Motability Scheme: If you receive either Disability Living Allowance (DLA) or Personal Independence Payments (PIP) you may be able to put some or all of that benefit towards hiring an electric wheelchair from the Motability Scheme.
- The British Red Cross: You can hire a manual wheelchair from The Red Cross in many different locations around the UK. They ask for a donation in return.
- ShopMobility: This scheme offers short-term loans of wheelchairs to help you get around while shopping in town centres.
- Mobility Hire: This specialist supplier offers manual and electric wheelchair hire.
- WheelFreedom: This is another UK-wide supplier of wheelchairs and other mobility equipment.
Buying a wheelchair
If you want a different wheelchair than the one being offered to you by the NHS, or you just want to own your wheelchair yourself, you might choose to buy it.
Remember that if you buy your wheelchair yourself, you also have to pay for any maintenance and repairs.
Some local NHS wheelchair services will give you an amount of money to put towards the cost of your wheelchair, in place of the wheelchair they would have given you.
This is called a personal wheelchair budget.
Personal wheelchair budgets
Personal wheelchair budgets are an amount given to you by your local wheelchair service to put towards the cost of a wheelchair.
Having access to this budget gives you the opportunity to choose from a wider range of wheelchairs than the NHS would typically offer.
How much is in your personal wheelchair budget depends on your circumstances.
Personal wheelchair budgets replace the previous wheelchair voucher scheme.
How much is a wheelchair?
Wheelchair prices vary depending on the type of wheelchair you want and what features it needs to have.
Manual wheelchairs with basic features could be around £150.
Electric wheelchairs may cost somewhere in the region of £1,000 – £2,000 or more.
The more features your chair has, the more expensive it will be. Some all-terrain power chairs retail between £10,000 – £15,000.
You don’t have to pay VAT on a wheelchair if you’re chronically ill or disabled, or buying it for someone who is.
Where to buy a wheelchair
It’s best to search for local mobility shops where you can try out your wheelchair in person.
While you can buy a wheelchair online, it is important to try it out to know that it’s the right one for you before you purchase.
You could also visit your nearest Disability Living Centre, where there will be lots of disability equipment you can try out in person. Speak to your local authority to find the nearest one to you.
Some national suppliers that sell wheelchairs include:
If you receive Disability Living Allowance (DLA) or Personal Independence Payments (PIP), you could also use the Motability Scheme to help you buy a wheelchair.
How to get a wheelchair at the airport
If you’re travelling by plane as a wheelchair user, you’ll need to let the airline know when you book. Make sure you tell them no later than 48 hours before you travel.
When you fly, you can’t take your wheelchair with you in the cabin. It will be stored in the hold. You should be given a special transit wheelchair for getting around the airport and boarding the plane.
This should be arranged by your airline ahead of time. They’ll inform you of how to get assistance when you get to the airport.
There should be assistance help points in the airport itself where you can ask for support from airport staff.
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This content was last reviewed in September 2023. We’ll review it again in 2025.