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If you've ever tried transferring without them, then you know that manual wheelchair wheel locks - or brakes, as they're commonly called - are truly a life saver. After all, wheel locks keep your wheelchair from scooting when... well... you're scooting!

However, beyond simply holding the wheelchair in place, wheel locks must meet your functional and ergonomic needs, where understanding wheel lock types and lingo will assist in choosing the best technology for your transfers.

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Push-to-lock brakes are the most common form of wheel locks, found on products ranging from low- to high-end manual wheelchairs. Push-to-lock brakes work well for many because the handle engages forward, and downward, increasing transfer clearance. In fact, some push-to-lock brakes feature a curved handle, so when the brake is engaged, there's not a handle protruding above the seat surface at all, allowing totally unobstructed transfers.

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Functionally, pull-to-lock brakes serve as a wheel lock the same as a push-to-lock, only the operational motion is reversed - that is, you pull to engage them. However, when pull-to-locks are engaged, the handle protrudes upward, which can interfere with transfers. Nevertheless, pull-to-lock brakes are commonly used on very short frame depths, where pushing the brake forward might interfere with swing-away legrests.

Push-to-Lock Vs. Pull-to-Lock
An interesting debate in the rehab community is when to prescribe push-to-lock versus pull-to-lock brakes? Some argue that push-to-locks can be especially helpful to some with muscle weakness, where one can use triceps and body weight to press forward and downward easier than pulling back on a brake. However, both engaging and disengaging a brake takes strength, so it's arguably a moot point which direction is easier - that is, both brakes styles require pushing and pulling. Therefore, preferences might be best based on functionality - transfer clearance or frame length restrictions - rather than dramatic reasons of ergonomics.

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Brake Extensions
For those with limited strength and grip, extension handles can be added to both push- and pull-to-lock brakes, allowing extra leverage. Extension handles do stick up 6" or so above the seat, so they can dramatically interfere with transfers. For this reason, extension handles are either removable or folding (with folding proving exceptionally convenient for those with limited dexterity).

Unilateral Wheel Locks
Unilateral wheel locks, available as push or pull, allow one lever to lock both wheels at once, an option needed by those who have the use of a single arm.

As most aggressive ultralight manual wheelchair users know, push- and pull-to-lock brakes can get in the way during propulsion, catching one's thumbs. To eliminate any protruding parts, scissor-lock brakes fold under the seat when not in use, leaving the handrim's full path unobstructed when propelling. To operate scissor-lock brakes, on reaches under the seat, and folds them outward, engaging them. It is important to note that scissor-lock brakes require increased dexterity and coordination compared to push- and pull-to-lock brakes, so they're not suitable for some with involved disabilities.

Hub Locks
The newest - and most costly - type of brakes are hub locks, in which the wheel is locked via a pin at the hub rather than a conventional brake simply pressing against the tire. Of course, because hub locks feature an absolutely positive lock - a pin penetrating a disc at the wheel's hub - there's no risk of them ever slipping, creating absolute security. However, hub locks, which can be ordered for specific models of new and existing wheelchairs, are very expensive at approximately $400 per set.

Grade Aids
Grade Aids, or "hill holders," are anti-rollback mechanisms that work in conjunction with brakes to keep the wheelchair from rolling backward when propelling up ramps and hills. For those with limited strength and coordination, grade aids dramatically improve independence, allowing one to avoid struggling to maintain the wheelchair's position when climbing grades by simply rotating the grade aid against the tire to start, then propelling forward.

Wheel locks, like many other wheelchair components, require maintenance to ensure optimal performance. Firstly, if pneumatic tires are used in conjunction with brakes, the tire's suggested air pressure should be maintained - even a slightly deflated tire can dramatically reduce a brake's effectiveness. Secondly, as tires wear, brakes should be readjusted, moved proportionately closer to the tires to maintain full contact when engaged. Lastly, it's vital to ensure the brakes' mounting hardware remains tight - brakes undergo tremendous forces, and loose mounting hardware can permit an engaged brake to skew and lose grip under load.

Wheel locks are one of those items that many don't think of until they really, really need to rely on them - that is, usually in the middle of a transfer. However, choosing the right wheel lock from the start can dramatically improve the performance, convenience, and safety of your manual wheelchair.

Published 1/08, Copyright 2008,