Published 9/03, Copyright 2003,

Playing the Weight Game:  
Understanding the whole story behind manual wheelchair weight specifications

By Mark E. Smith

Image of ultralightpencil.jpg

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am going to show you right here and now that I am among the greatest psychics of all time.  Here's what I need you to do:

Grab a bathroom scale, and have your companion stand on it, noting his or her weight (please, no laughing or shocked looks).  Next, hand him or her your lightweight manual wheelchair, and note the combined weight total.  Thirdly, subtract the first scale reading from the second reading, and solve for the weight of the chair (for example, 211 - 175 = 36).  Now, compare the actual weight of the chair to the manufacturer's published weight on its brochures.

Alright, my psychic abilities tell me that your manual wheelchair weighs approximately 5 lbs. more than the manufacturer's published weight.  

…Spooky, isn't it?

OK, I have no psychic abilities, but, as a consumer and manager in the mobility industry, what I do know are the real numbers behind the ultralight manual wheelchairs that many of us rely on, and more importantly how manufactures get away with publishing weights seemingly well below those of the actual products rolling in the real world.

Wheelchair weights are important toward performance, marketing, and funding - all of which may provoke a manufacturer to publish the lowest number possible.  From a performance perspective, a lighter chair is easier to propel and transport than a heavier one.  From a marketing view, lighter is better, and if company A can tout lesser weight on its chair than company B's, they'll undoubtedly impress consumers with advertising copy.  And, from a funding standpoint, a manufacturer must fit a chair's weight within funding classes if it wishes to succeed on the mass market.  Therefore, for all these reasons, publishing the lightest possible weight is advantageous to manufacturers.

Still, how do manufacturers get away with publishing lower weight specifications than those of the actual products coming of their assembly lines?  

Creative configurations, that's how.  Sure, the vast majority of users require an 18"-wide seat, legrests, armrests, and brakes, but that's not the real-world configuration to which many manufacturers weigh products.   Legrests are never included in published weights (6061 T-6 aluminum swing-away legrests weigh approximately 4lbs. per pair), and most often a 16"x16" frame is weighed (you can add approximately 1.5 lbs. for an 18"x16" aluminum K0005 folding frame size).  So, at that point, the chairs purchased are routinely 5.5 lbs. heavier than the published specifications.  However, depending on the model of chair, the manufacture probably didn't stop with deducting legrests and average frame material - armrests and brakes may be deducted, as well, removing approximately 5 lbs. more from the published specification.  Oh, and the mag wheels that are heavier than spokes but exceptionally common, typically aren't included in published weights, either (manufacturers fudge approximately 2 lbs. more).  To top it all off, at least one top manual wheelchair manufacturer doesn't even include rear wheels in its published weights (surely, you'll find someone, somewhere whom uses a 16"x16" frame, without legrests, armrests, and brakes; but, no one uses a wheelchair without wheels - nevertheless, it knocks another 10 lbs. off the published specification, literally making the 36 lb. wheelchair read as 17 lbs. to consumers).

The next question to this is, are wheelchair manufacturers crossing ethical boundaries by never publishing real-world weights of manual chairs?

The answer is, yes and no.  Funding codes dictate weights without legrests, and define a 16"x16" chair as a standard size (as well as 18"x16"), so a published weight of a 16"x16" chair without legrests is technically accurate toward governmental funding protocol.  This standard, though, doesn't reflect real-world products, and may mislead uninformed consumers whom naturally link the 28 lb. specification on the back of the brochure to the 38 lb. full-featured chair on the front of the brochure.  Put simply, published weights are most often technically accurate but entirely misleading.

The industry as a whole, however, is responsible for magnifying skewed weight specifications through cut-throat competition.  Weight is a very important aspect of manual chairs, and the numbers - much like miles per gallon for cars - are an easy aspect for manufacturers to hype.  After all, no specification will catch your eye more on a brochure than the chair's weight (but, in reality, there are many other specifications as important - if not, more important!).  As a result, manufacturers have set an industry-wide poor example by refusing to put consumers' interests and corporate ethics first, striving to do whatever necessary to make their chairs appear lighter than the competition.  The result is that manufacturers prevent each other from pursuing the proper path, as the honest manufacturers lose by publishing honest numbers (let's face it, the vast majority of consumers trust brochures, not questioning how numbers are created, and will pick a 22 lb. chair over a 28 lb. chair every time, even though the published 22 lb. chair may actually weigh more than the 28 lb. chair.  In this way, not only may a consumer be misled about one product, he may be unjustly steered away from a more ethical manufacturer that publishes truer weights.  

From an industry standpoint, I advocate publishing all numbers.  For example, in the manual wheelchair literature I've worked on, I've insisted on such specifications as, "29 lbs. w/o legrests, 33 lbs. w/legrests.)  Further, I support weighing an 18"x16" size, and going one step further and publishing optional component weights, such as armrests, side-guards, and anti-tips.  The more information consumers have, the better.

Nevertheless, how do consumers get the real weights of chairs from the vast majority of manufacturers - that is, without rolling around an Abilities Expo with a scale?  Ultimately, the truest way to determine a chair's weight is by trying it for yourself, taking it for a spin and lifting it.  A light chair is a light chair, and a heavy chair is a heavy chair, and no matter what a marketing group or salesman touts, physics tell the truth.

Manual wheelchairs are a business just like all others, and as such, competition sometimes creates a climate that's less than consumer friendly, as with published manual wheelchair weight specifications.  As a consumer, understand the products offered, read the fine print, and try the actual chair before you order.  In this way, you won't need psychic abilities to know exactly what you're receiving in your new chair - that is, lean and mean, or a whale setting sail.

Image of menubarpage.jpg