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Imagine Indiana Jones' reaction if you tried to replace his trademark leather jacket with a new one. After all, Indy has presumably worn his leather jacket for decades, to where it's like his second skin. But, what would his reaction be if you swapped his well-worn jacket for a new one? Sure, he could likely still outrun boulders in caves, and swing across raging rivers on tattered rope bridges, but he probably wouldn't be as comfortable, and he'd initially want his life partner back, his original Indy jacket.

I often encounter wheelchair users who are disgruntled that their new wheelchairs don't “feel” like their old ones. In fact, some users are so discouraged that their new wheelchairs don't initially feel like their old ones that, after only a few minutes of use, they park their shiny, new, hi-tech wheelchairs in corners, never to use them again. However, is it realistic to expect that a new wheelchair will immediately feel exactly like one you've used for years, as comfortable as Indy's decades-old jacket?

Of course not. In reality, a new wheelchair will absolutely feel different than one that you've used for years. Wheelchairs and seating, just like Indiana Jones' jacket, become part of us over time. Not only do we get used to the way a particular wheelchair performs and handles, but the seating and positioning components break-in and form to us, creating all-around comfort – that is, over time, our wheelchairs slowly become extensions of our bodies.

When we change wheelchairs – no matter to an entirely different model, or selecting the exact same model – it's impossible for them to feel like the ones we've used for years. Firstly, many users are only eligible for a new wheelchair every five years, which is such a long time frame that wheelchair technology evolves, often making it impossible to replace an existing wheelchair with one that's identical in every way. Therefore, one can't expect to transition from one wheelchair technology to another without a “comfort curve,” where it simply takes time to adjust to a newer wheelchair and its characteristics.

Secondly, even if one replaces an existing wheelchair with one that's a seemingly identical model, it still usually won't feel exactly the same as the one used for years. Components ranging from seating to positioning straps to wheel bearings, and on and on, take time to break-in, so using a new wheelchair can feel like putting on a new, stiff leather jacket instead of slipping into one worn for decades. In this way, there's a break-in process to wheelchairs, where our bodies and the wheelchair take time to meld.

Lastly, even though most wheelchairs today are built to each user's individual specifications, adjustments are still usually needed when the wheelchair arrives to fine-tune the wheelchair's seating, positioning, and performance to the user's precise needs. It's unrealistic to assume that when one sits in a new wheelchair for the first time that the back angle, seat angle, armrest position, legrest length, and so on, will fit like a tailored suit. Rather, many fine adjustments are often required when a new wheelchair is delivered, and it's vital to perform this process with a provider instead of simply dismissing the wheelchair as not fitting correctly.

So, the larger question is, how long does it take one to become “comfortable” using a new wheelchair?

On average, several weeks. Again, one's body needs to adjust to new positioning components; new components need time to break-in; one's coordination needs to calibrate to different handling characteristics; and, fitting adjustments must be made to precisely tailor the new wheelchair to one's precise needs.

Therefore, the next time that you receive a new wheelchair that feels “different,” don't dismiss it after only a few hours of use, reverting back to your old wheelchair out of familiarity. After all, the reason why you received a new wheelchair is likely because you seek utmost reliability, performance, and independence, so don't give up such promising characteristics based on initial feelings. Remember, it takes time to get used to a new wheelchair, several weeks in most cases. Give your body and coordination time to calibrate to the new wheelchair; allow the new wheelchair components time to break-in; and, most importantly, work with your provider as much as needed to fine tune all adjustments to your specific needs. If you dedicate yourself toward this vital adjustment period, you're surely to end up with a new wheelchair that doesn't sit in a corner, but takes your mobility to new heights of liberation – and, yes, ultimately fits as comfortably as Indy's decades-old leather jacket.

Published 12/08, Copyright 2008,