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Have you ever seen the classic funny video with the golden retriever who has a stick in his mouth and cat get it through the doorway into the house? It's hilarious because the poor dog holds the stick in his mouth, dead-center, with the stick wider than the doorway, and keeps trying to get through the doorway, but every time that he tries, the stick catches on each side of the door, stopping him in his tracks – and the clueless dog can't figure out the problem.

More than once in my career I have received a call or an email from a consumer, exclaiming, Help, I can't get my new power wheelchair into my house! Or, Help, my new power wheelchair won't fit through my bathroom's doorway! Or, Help, my new power wheelchair won't work with my van! And, it's for these reasons that environmental trials and considerations should be a part of the power wheelchair selection process for consumers.

Never Assume
In the selection process, it's easy for those new to needing mobility to assume that a wheelchair will inherently fit and perform wherever one needs. Similarly, it's easy for a long-time mobility user to assume that a new power wheelchair will perform equal to his or her current wheelchair in all environments. However, both of these assumptive positions can harm one's mobility in receiving a new power wheelchair, as models vary widely in handling, size, and performance.

In fact, it's vital for a consumer to fully assess his or her environmental needs whenever selecting a new power wheelchair, and confirm as assuredly as possible that the prospective model will perform as needed in all vital environments. Therefore, under ideal conditions – and where one's physical abilities allow – a physical trial, or “demo,” of potentially-selected power wheelchair models should occur in one's home and everyday environments to determine suitability. Likewise, if a consumer can't transfer into demo power wheelchairs to personally try them, having the provider or a relative maneuver them in needed enviroments to assess compatibility proves beneficial, as well.

Common Environmental Considerations:

Entry Ramps and Thresholds
With some homes having steep ramps or tall thresholds, it's important to ensure that a power wheelchair can enter the home for easy, safe entry and exits.

Modern doorways are 30”, 32”, or 36” wide, with older doorways ranging from as narrow as 12”, so doorway widths can vary greatly among homes and apartments. Also, doorways are measured at the frame, not counting the hinged door, which can deduct 2” from the width, meaning that a 30” doorway may actually only have a 28” opening. When doorway variations are coupled with power wheelchair model variations in width, it proves vital to literally confirm a power wheelchair's fit if the measurements are close. For example, if a 30” doorway only has a 28” opening, a 27”-wide power wheelchair base still may not fit if the joystick or armrests protrude. Therefore, always try a prospective power wheelchair model in the actual doorways in question.

While most hallways are straight, many are narrow and require 90-degree turns into doorways – this can be among the most difficult maneuvers in a power wheelchair. Always confirm that a prospective power wheelchair model can negotiate one's hallway and adjoining doorways without bumping walls.

Bathrooms are the most likely rooms in homes and apartments to have extra-narrow doorways, so for starters, confirm that the power wheelchair model fits through the doorway. Secondly, bathrooms are also among the most confined spaces in a home, so confirm access and maneuverability within the bathroom, itself.

Tables and Desks
While demo power wheelchairs are usually not set-up to one's exact needs, consideration and final seat-to-floor-height measurements should be considered toward table and desks within the home, and applied to ordering specifications.

Driveways, Decks, and Yards
All areas of one's home enviroment should be considered during the demo process, including the driveway, deck, and yard. Steep, uneven driveways, rough deck transitions, and aggressive yard terrain can hamper one's mobility, so a power wheelchair should be trialed in such exterior areas of importance to assess compatability.

Accessible Vans
If one plans to transport the prospective power wheelchair model in an accessible van, verify all fit and function, from compatibility with the ramp or lift, to interior maneuverability, to proper securement. And, if one will be driving from the power wheelchair, it should be positioned in the driver's station, confirming fit and appropriateness for vehicle operation.

Paratransit and Buses
Many paratransit and public buses have limitations toward power wheelchair weight and dimensions, as well as requirements for securement points, so compatibility should be confirmed in accordance with the transit authority's regulations.

Other User-Specific Environments
Of course, power wheelchairs are one's legs for all intents, and no matter if one is a school teacher or a cattle rancher, power wheelchairs can find themselves in very individualized environments. If there is a user-specific environment involved, the prospective power wheelchair model should certainly be trialed within its context, as well.

There's No Ideal, But Close
With so many power wheelchair models available, it's often quite possible to find one that meets many of a consumer's environmental uses. Still, some models perform better in some environments and lesser in others, and there will almost be a compromise in some way, no matter which model is chosen. For example, a 23”-wide power wheelchair may not have blazing performance in one's rural backyard, but because it fits through the 26” bathroom doorway and is compatibile with driving one's van, it may be the best choice among other models. Therefore, it's important to prioritize one's environmental needs, and realistically understand that a single model may not meet one's entire wishes, but if the top 90% are met, one will likely have very successful mobility in the longterm. Put simply, recognizing which environmental needs are most vital, and then determine which model best fits those needs.

Liberating, Not Befuddling
No, our golden retriever friend will never understand why his stick wouldn't fit through the doorway, forever befuddled. However, when a consumer properly trials prospective power wheelchair models in his or her environments, determining which best meets his or her needs, the final product received will be simply amazing: Rolling effortlessly through the doorways of life as a tool of liberation.

Published 10/08, Copyright 2008,