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How to Choose and Use a Wheelchair

A wheelchair can help a person who has a hard time walking or is not able to walk. A physical or occupational therapist or another specialist can help you choose the right chair for you. It will be based on your size, environment, and physical strengths and limits. You will need special training before you begin using a wheelchair.

What You Will Need

  • A properly fitted wheelchair that meets your needs and level of activity
  • Measurements of the doorways, hallways, and bathrooms in your home
  • An appointment with a physical or occupational therapist or another specialist who can show you how to safely use the chair

Steps to Take

Practice these skills with help from your therapist or specialist:

  1. How to Use a Wheelchair_1 Practice moving safely from the wheelchair to other surfaces, such as the chair, car seat, sofa, and bed. Always lock the brakes or wheel locks on both wheels. Raise any footplates when you move in and out of the wheelchair. DO NOT try to reach for objects while sitting in a wheelchair. It may result in a fall.
  2. How to Use a Wheelchair_2aHow to Use a Wheelchair_2b Practice using the wheelchair in forward and backward directions.
  3. How to Use a Wheelchair_3aHow to Use a Wheelchair_3b In a manual wheelchair, practice quick turns by moving one wheel forward and the other wheel backward. In a motorized wheelchair, learn to use all speeds safely.
  4. How to Use a Wheelchair_4aHow to Use a Wheelchair_4b Go up and down inclines and ramps. Back into an elevator so you can use the elevator control panel.
  5. Practice moving in and out of the rooms in your house. Learn how to maneuver through doorways, narrow hallways, and bathrooms. Note how much space is needed to turn your chair around, especially in the bathroom.

Turn off the power on your motorized wheelchair when you are not using it.

Common Questions

Q. What are some basic parts of a wheelchair?

A. There are many types of wheelchairs and they all have different parts. Brakes or wheel locks are always an important part. They prevent the wheels from moving when you are getting in and out of the chair. Safety belts prevent you from falling out. There are large rear wheels, called the drive wheels that are used to move the wheelchair. Caster wheels are the small front wheels. Other features that you may want are cushions, armrests, footplates, footrests, and anti-tipping devices. A powered wheelchair has an input device, motor, and battery.

Q. How do I keep my wheelchair in good condition?

A. Check the tires to make sure they are properly inflated. Make sure wheel locks or brakes work. Keep track of the battery life of an battery-powered wheelchair so you do not run out. Listen for any unusual sounds from the motor. Electric or battery powered chairs should move smoothly, without a jerking motion.

Call Your Doctor

Call the doctor if you:

  • Have problems moving your wheelchair around
  • Become too weak to use your wheelchair
  • Fall

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians

Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons


The Arthritis Society

The College of Family Physicians of Canada


Disability and Rehabilitation: Wheelchair service training package-basic level. World Health Organization website. Available at: https://www.who.int/disabilities/technology/wheelchairpackage/en. Accessed March 9, 2020.

Miller WC, Best KL, et al. Influence of peer-led wheelchair training on wheelchair skills and participation in older adults: clinical outcomes of a randomized controlled feasibility study. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2019;100(6):1023-1031.

Patient education: teaching the patient about safe use of mobility aids. EBSCO Nursing Reference Center website. Available at:https://www.ebscohost.com/nursing/products/nursing-reference-center. Updated November 9, 2018. Accessed March 9, 2020.

Sakakibara BM, Miller WC, et al. Health, personal and environmental predictors of wheelchair-use confidence in adult wheelchair users. Phys Ther. 2015;95(10):1365-1373.

Last reviewed November 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Laura Lei-Rivera, PT, DPT, GCS  Last Updated: 1/12/2021