Wheel-Tech, Part 1

This blog was originally written for CAPTIVATING Magazine  and appeared in the most recent edition. Used here with permission.

Wheels and a chair

Close up of a wheel with silver rim and spokes, and narrow, bright blue tires. In front of the tire is the lever to lock the wheel.Why do we put wheels on chairs? It makes them unstable and likely to roll.

Over a quarter century of living on wheels, I’ve learned a bit, though I am not a seating expert. (That is a disclaimer, if you didn’t recognize it carefully camouflaged there.)

Living near Orlando, Florida I see lots of different mobility aids. Some are awesome, but some are not. I recently saw a family struggling when their wheelchair was not up to their needs.

The young mother was rather obviously a full-time wheelchair user. Her chair was a garden variety, hospital type mobility aid. The father was pushing and trying to hold the hand of a child whilst the mom had a smaller child on her lap. They were struggling.  What a difference a more appropriate chair would have made to them! How do we know what we need? That is where this mini-series comes in. With some basics we can be prepared to ask questions and advocate for ourselves.

In Part 1 of our wheelchair primer let’s talk a bit about the most defining part of a wheelchair, the wheels. In Part 2, coming soon, we’ll examine the chair. Remember that a  modern wheelchair is essentially a bicycle. If we are going to ride it occasionally, or rent it on vacation, a beach cruiser might be what we need. If we are going to ride it all day, every day, and commute with it, we need something else entirely. The most defining part of the wheelchair is the wheel, or wheels since there are four of them.

Plastic spokes on plastic wheels. You get the idea.

2 black wheels with black, plastic spokes and medium width, black tires.The wheels pictured here came with my handcycle “bike.” I have since replaced them with something lighter, which makes the “bike” easier to propel. These are the basic wheelchair wheels. They are rather heavy and harder to roll. You will find these on most “off the shelf” wheelchairs. This type of wheel was on the chair I used on our example.


Carbon fiber, composite, and some titanium.

2 black, carbon fiber wheels with red spokes, titanium hand rims.At the opposite end of the wheel spectrum are ultra-light wheels. They are paired with  ultra-light, custom chairs. These are easy for the person who rides in the chair or a  family member to handle and require far less energy to roll. In fact, an ounce off the wheel weight is effectively a pound less to push, so a difference of 32 ounces, for example, makes a huge difference to the person who is supplying the energy.

In the middle, and the most common wheels you will find on a chair made and set up for the individual rider are the shiny, aluminum wheels and steel spokes that are shown in the top picture. These are seldom found on off the shelf wheelchairs and are practical for everyday living.

Put on some tires and get moving

Close up of a wheel with silver rim and spokes, and narrow, bright blue tires. In front of the tire is the lever to lock the wheel.

The bright blue tires in the top picture are rubber and feel like I’m pushing through packed sand. Blowing a pneumatic (air) tire in Target was rather shocking, not to mention a problem, and having my tired go down between Taiwan and London prompted me to put these on the chair I use for travel. Besides, the bright blue is fun.

Many families will need the use of a wheelchair at some point. What works in the hospital is not ideal for theme parks. Perhaps this primer will give you some kind of idea of what to get to suit your needs and help you recognize what you are seeing. A seating specialist can advise you on what works and be an advocate for you if there are third parties in the mix. Please let me know if you have questions.

Note from George… I have been somewhat absent, and for that I apologize. I’m doing some occupational therapy, which is taking considerable time and yielding good results. I think it’s time to write again! Thank you for your patience.

Picture descriptions: Top picture shows a shiny aluminum wheel and spokes with bright blue tires. Second picture is of 2 black plastic wheels and spokes with black tires. Third picture shows 2 obviously lighter wheels of black, carbon fiber with red spokes and titanium handrims. Fourth picture is a small version of the main picture. 


15 thoughts on “Wheel-Tech, Part 1

  1. I’m glad to see you back here George, but I’m also glad you’re taking the time you need to do your OT, especially as you’re seeing results. This is such an informative article, and I’m sure many folks will find it extremely helpful. Blessings to you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Indeed. It also has to meet the needs of the person who has to help push it or has to lift it. My first chair weighed 65 pounds. I didn’t know any better and just accepted it. And the cost difference is staggering. $400 vs. $8000!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! The wheels make a lot of difference and are the first tip off as to what kind of a chair it is and thus who might use it. Rarely does the maitre d’ of a restaurant know the difference. Usually the better the wheel, the better the chair and the more independent the rider. It might also tip them off as to why many of us don’t want to let them move it somewhere else whilst we eat.


  2. There really is a lot to factor in. I never would have thought of carbon fibre ultra-light wheels and the impact that has, like requiring less energy to roll/push. The blue ones do look funky but it seems like offer a lot more resistance with it feeling like riding through sand. Such an excellent point about how you need to know what options are out there, what to look for, and to figure out what you might need. It must be awful using a chair long term that’s not suited to your needs, making the day to day all the more difficult.

    Fantastic post, George, thoroughly useful!
    Caz xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I read your reply, it occurred to me that it is possible that in your work you might encounter a situation where it becomes relevant. It’s definitely not as interesting as Munch! 🙂


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