No matter who you are, chances are that at some point, you will have a friend or family member using a wheelchair, whether temporarily (e.g., while recovering from a broken leg) or long-term. You may need to drive them to and from medical appointments or simply be able to bring their wheelchair along with you on some other outing or errand.
If you have never folded a wheelchair for transport before, this may sound overwhelming. Luckily, folding up a manual wheelchair is easier than you might think! Once you get comfortable with a few simple steps and learn a few pitfalls to avoid, you’ll be ready to take your wheelchair-using friend to appointments or driving around town before you know it.
Determine What Kind of Wheelchair You Have
If you are new to working with wheelchairs, you may not know that there are several types of wheelchairs you may encounter. One type of wheelchair is the power wheelchair, which has a battery pack and electronic controls that allow users to move and steer the wheelchair without using their arm and shoulder strength to rotate the wheels.
Power wheelchairs are very large and heavy and are typically only transported in a special van with a lift installed in it. If you have only a power wheelchair, you likely need to make alternative transportation arrangements or acquire a manual or transport wheelchair for use on outings.
Manual and transport wheelchairs, in contrast, are the types of wheelchairs you would fold up and take with you for an appointment or other travel.
A manual wheelchair is probably the type of wheelchair you most often think of when envisioning a wheelchair. It has large rear wheels that are placed far enough forward on the chair to allow the person using the chair to use his or her arms to rotate the wheels and power the chair forward.
In contrast, a transport wheelchair is designed for someone else to push a person in the chair. The rear wheels are smaller than those on a manual wheelchair and cannot be reached or controlled by the person using the chair.
Either a manual or a transport wheelchair can be folded up and stored in a standard vehicle for transport to another location.
Assess Your Vehicle for the Best Place to Store the Wheelchair
If you purchased your vehicle knowing that you would need to transport a wheelchair in it, then you probably already know where in your vehicle you will store the wheelchair. But in many cases, the need to transport a wheelchair arises after the fact, so you’ll need to determine where you’ll put the folded-up wheelchair.
Wheelchairs can be stored in the passenger seat, in the vehicle’s back seat, or in the trunk, depending on the size of the chair and the size of your vehicle.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to account for the width, length, and height of the folded chair to determine where it will fit best inside your vehicle. You’ll, of course, also need to consider how many people will be riding in the vehicle and any other items you need to transport with you.
You should also consider the weight of the chair once it is folded and, if applicable, partially disassembled. Wheelchairs can be quite heavy, and it is common for people to report shoulder pain or back strain due to lifting wheelchairs in and out of vehicles.
If it is possible to place the chair somewhere in the car where you don’t have to lift it quite as high when taking it in and out, that may help you avoid injury. (For example, you’ll have to lift the chair much higher to get it in and out of a trunk than you would to put it in the back seat.)
Remove Cushions or Other Wheelchair Accessories
Before you can begin to fold your wheelchair, you’ll need to remove any items the wheelchair user has added for comfort, such as seat cushions or blankets. Be sure to bring these along with you so that you can put them back on the chair when you unfold them at your destination.
Engage the Wheelchair’s Brakes
The critical first step in just about any action you plan to take with a wheelchair is to engage the brakes, and folding your wheelchair is no different. If the brakes are not engaged, the wheelchair could roll away from you while you are trying to fold it.
For the same reason, folding the wheelchair on a flat surface is best!
Lift and Fold the Wheelchair’s Seat
Now we get to the real meat of things – getting started on folding the chair. Every wheelchair is slightly different, but in general, these steps will apply to most manual or transport wheelchairs.
Your goal in this step of the process is to get the seat to fold inward on itself to become as close to flat as it can be. You are helping the seat and back of the chair fold in half down the center so that the outer edges of the chair (the wheels, frame, and handles) come toward each other.
If you are not sure how this particular wheelchair folds up, the first thing you should do is look at the area of the seat where the user actually sits. You may find that there is a pull handle right there on the seat. If so, you’re in luck – simply pull up on that handle, and the seat will pop up and start coming together from each side.
If there is no handle on the wheelchair’s seat, don’t worry – it is still easy to get the chair to start folding. Place one hand on the top of the seatback (the part the user would lean back against when in the chair) and the other hand in the middle of the bottom of the seat (the part the user sits on), along its front edge. Pull up on the seat with that second hand, and it should begin to bend in the middle and fold upward.
Be sure to pull and fold slowly to avoid your hands getting caught and pinched as the chair folds. (Be slow when you unfold it again at your destination for the same reason!)
Remove Wheels, Footrests, and Other Removable Parts
Depending on the type of chair you have and the amount of storage space in the vehicle you are using to transport the chair, you may need to remove additional parts of the chair before storing it.
The large rear wheels come off some chairs. Usually, this is an easy process: release the wheel locks, push a button in the middle of the spokes of the wheel, and pull the wheel outward to get it off.
You may also need to remove footrests. Usually, removable footrests swing out to the side and then can be lifted up to remove.
You might be able to better understand all these steps by seeing the process in action. This quick video is a great illustration of folding a manual wheelchair, including the removal of rear wheels and footrests!
Your wheelchair may have additional components to remove for transport as well. You can consult the wheelchair user’s manual or ask your physical therapist or nursing home staff member if you believe you may need to identify additional parts of the chair for removal.
Be sure to bring all these removed parts with you in your vehicle so that you can properly put the chair back together for use at your destination!
Store the Wheelchair in the Vehicle
Once you have folded the wheelchair as flat as it can go and removed any additional parts as necessary, you are ready to place the chair in your vehicle. Remember to lift carefully, keeping in mind the chair’s weight and the possibility of back or shoulder strain.
The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this Blog article are not intended to amount to advice, and you should not rely on any of the contents of this Blog article. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this Blog article. OccupationaltherapyBlog disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this Blog article.
“How to open and fold a wheelchair” – Very Well Health
“How to fold a (manual) wheelchair” – 1800wheelchair.com
How to fold and transport a manual wheelchair – National Seating and Mobility Canada – YouTube
“Transporting a manual wheelchair in a vehicle: tips and advice” – Motion Composites