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When it comes to fitting a new wheelchair, few aspects can seem as sensitive as weight capacity.  After all, our culture proves the topic of one's weight as an often touchy subject, where it's considered rude to discuss another's weight, and many people are uncomfortable discussing their own weight.  However, the selection of a wheelchair with an appropriate weight capacity shouldn't be a sensitive subject, where one's wheelchair selection must be based on true physical need, not societal emphasis toward weight. And, when the topic is better understood - why selecting an appropriate weight capacity is so important - the subject becomes much more approachable.

Defining Weight Capacity
When most think of weight capacity, a definition of the maximum user weight that a wheelchair can safely support comes to mind.  However, weight capacity is a linear term that affects both ends of the scale, from lightest to heaviest users alike.

For lighter-weight users, weight capacity can affect a wheelchair's performance, as with a 95lb. user not having enough weight to activate suspension movement on a wheelchair with, say, a 300lb. weight capacity.  For this reason, some wheelchair models feature selectable weight capacity ranges - as in suspension packages ordered by user weight - allowing tailoring of the unit based on individual user weight.  Other wheelchairs are unaffected by lighter-weight users, where minimum weight is of no consequence.  In either case, a lighter-weight user does not typically wish to order a wheelchair that exceeds a 250lb. to 300lb weight capacity, as models with higher weight capacities typically have enhanced frames and suspensions that may not perform well for very lightweight users.

At the opposite end of the scale, weight capacity defines the maximum user capacity that a wheelchair can support - that is, a 300lb. capacity wheelchair is suitable for users up to 300lbs.  In most cases, maximum weight capacity relates to the user only, and does not decrease when adding tilt seating or other manufacturer options that attach to the wheelchair (there have been exceptions to this, though, where a few models have specified lower weight capacities based on advanced seating options).  However, seating, itself, can also have a weight capacity, and it should be noted in relation to the base (one should follow the component with the lowest weight capacity, no matter if it's the base or the seating).

How Weight Capacities Are Determined
Wheelchairs are designed with a target weight capacity, then formally tested to fatigue and stability standards, usually with a 20% safety margin added - that is, a 250lb. capacity wheelchair is tested with a 300lb. load, and if it passes, a 250lb. weight capacity is granted.  It's important to note that a safety margin is not meant for use by an end user, but is an assurance toward overall dynamic performance - a wheelchair with a 250lb. that failed at 251lbs. may not have practical real-world longevity with a 250lb. user during all reasonable circumstances, so testing beyond a weight capacity is a prudent measure.

What Creates A Heavy-Duty Weight Capacity
Heavy-duty (HD) packages are typically 300lb. capacities on manual wheelchairs, and 400lb. and 500lb. capacities on power wheelchairs.  HD manual wheelchairs often feature a reinforced frame and ulphostery.  HD power wheelchairs often feature reinforced seating, enhanced suspension, and higher-torque motors, with more durable gearboxes and drive shafts.  In the case of both manual and power wheelchair HD packages, there are additional costs involved beyond standard weight capacity units per enhanced construction and components, which is funded by insurers based on need.

To HD, Or Not To HD
A common consumer question is whether to choose an HD package if their weight is close to a maximum standard capacity?  Of course, any time one is over a standard weight capacity, even by just a few pounds, an HD package should be chosen.  Additionally, if a user is very close to a maximum standard weight capacity - say, 295lbs. compared to a maximum capacity of 300lbs. - with the likelihood of gaining weight, an HD package is a wise consideration.  Ultimately, for heavier users, an HD package provides enhanced performance and product longevity over a standard capacity wheelchair, so an HD package is usually a wise choice for those who weigh in at the maximum limit of a standard weight capacity.

The fact is, weight capacity is simply about optimal mobility - and approaching it with openness and realism is a key to fitting the right mobility to your needs.

Published 6/07, Copyright 2007, WheelchairJunkie.com