Disability and Independence: accessorise your wheelchair, simplify your life!

Frances Leckie, editor of Independent Living, takes a look at some of the latest wheelchair accessories to make life on wheels smoother and easier.


In this article, I will be covering a whole range of add-ons for wheelchairs and scooters, from high-tech to basic, fun to serious. The one thing they all have in common is that they tend not to come as standard with your wheels, and they will contribute a degree of ease and/or enjoyment to life.

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Active Controls Power Buddy USB charger for phones and tablets

Keep your smartphone functioning
35 million people in the UK now have a smartphone, and the numbers are expected to rise, so most of you are probably only too well aware that one of the most irritating features of these indispensable gadgets is the speed with which the battery runs down. Nothing is more frustrating than turning to your phone to find the nearest post office or Michelin-starred restaurant, or even to make an essential call, and discovering that it is out of juice. So a USB charger that connects with the charging port of a powerchair or scooter, and lets you charge up your phone, tablet or MP3 player, while you’re on the move, sounds like a really useful accessory. Active Controls Power Buddy is a “plug and play” system that you can set up quickly and easily.

Convenient for work, communication, and play
And while we are on the subject of tablets, consoles and similar pieces of equipment, how do you go about using them conveniently? There are several tablet holders available, which hold the device securely and clamp to the armrest of your chair. Increasingly, tablets are being used for all sorts of assistive purposes, notably including communication for people who have lost their speech, but are able to use a touchscreen for input. With new apps coming along all the time, including sound amplifiers, captioning of phone calls for deaf and hearing-impaired users and even volunteer eyes for blind people, the use of tablets is likely to increase, as well as the need to keep it securely clamped in just the right position.

When you are settled in one place, a lap tray is a convenient aid to working, eating, playing games or pursuing hobbies. One with a beanbag cushion arrangement on the underside brings a number of advantages: it will sit securely across your legs without moving; protect you from the sometimes considerable heat generated by a laptop; prevent pressure damage to your skin. It is also handy to have in those many situations where you need a firm surface to write on, but – surprise, surprise – those provided are out of reach from your wheelchair. Post offices and polling stations spring to mind. Then, a combined wheelchair backpack and lap tray, such as the Trabasack, is ideal.

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Able2’s Splash wheelchair bags come in a range of designs and colours

Suitable storage
Whilst on the subject of bags, there are now many variations available, with a range of prices and styles. Whether you want panniers that fit over the arms of a wheelchair or scooter, bags that go on the back of the seat, or even under-seat storage – you can find a model to suit the vast majority of chairs, and they aren’t all black, as this rather cheery yellow one from Able2 proves, although the vast majority are! If you need to carry crutches, sticks or oxygen tanks, you’ll find customised luggage to accommodate these items too.

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Powered Neater Arm Support requires very little movement from the user

If your arm needs support
For wheelchair users with arm weakness, an arm support such as those from Neater Solutions, can make a big difference to independence. The support can be clamped to your chair, and allows you to reach a hand to your face, for eating, drinking, putting on make-up etc., and also to operate a keyboard, mobile phone, or undertake other manual activities. There are both powered and manual versions available, to suit different degrees of muscle strength. The powered supports require very little movement from the user in order to operate. Apart from the functional benefits of being able to manage daily tasks unaided, arm supports can also keep joints moving for greater flexibility and avoidance of contractures, maintain strength and help to reduce the development of postural deformities.

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The AAT Servo power add-on makes more of the user’s pushing movements

Add some power
One area where I have seen lots of interesting new developments over the years is in add-on power packs for manual wheelchairs. They have come a long way since the early, often rather underpowered models. There are broadly three different concepts: powered wheel hubs which enable a self-propeller to alternate between doing all the work themselves or getting some motorised assistance; power packs which attach to the rear of the wheelchair, and are operated by an attendant using controls on the push handles; and a powered front wheel, which converts a manual chair into a powered trike. The latter type, such as Steering Developments’ Viper, is particularly appealing for anyone who fancies the idea of heading off the beaten track and tackling more challenging terrain. Any add-on power unit should be capable of being fitted and removed in a minute or less, once your chair has been fitted with the appropriate docking bracket. There is also a manual version of the trike conversion – the Freewheel clamps to the footrest of your wheelchair, lifting the front castors off the ground, and providing instead a single larger wheel that makes navigating rough roads and grass much easier.

Comfort and stability

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Ottobock’s Aquos cushion provides positioning and pressure care support

While you are thinking about bouncing and bumping your way over uneven surfaces, this is probably a good moment to mention comfort. You probably spend a lot of time sitting in your chair, so you want to make it as comfortable as possible, not least to avoid the risk of pressure damage to your skin, which is an occupational hazard for wheelchair users. The science of pressure care is developing all the time, and there are several cushions available that include special foam and/or cells filled with air or liquid which distribute pressure more evenly. Contoured cushions can help to improve posture and stability, as well.

The importance of… cup holders!
And finally, I understand that, implausible as it may sound, one of the most important elements motivating the choice of a new car is the cup holders. For various interesting psychological reasons, having somewhere (or many places) safe and convenient to hold a hot drink is crucial to feelings of security and well-being, so you may not be surprised that cup holders are also available for wheelchairs, albeit I have yet to come across one where they are provided as standard equipment! If you want to make sure that you have ready access to drinks at all times (let’s not forget the importance of regular hydration as summer temperatures rise), there are wheelchair cup holders aplenty. Take a look at any of the well-known online retailers, where you will find both model-specific versions and others described as universal. All tend to be either clamped or Velcro-ed to the arm or frame of the wheelchair.

Is the current range of wheelchair accessories meeting your needs and expectations? Do you find yourself grumbling about the absence of some gizmo or gadget that would make your life easier or more fun? If so, let me know – there may be someone working away on a prototype at this very moment. Or get in touch with ideas for wheelchair accessories that you want, the next article will focus on our accessory wish list!

By Frances Leckie

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