Studying the characteristics of power wheelchair use sheds some light onto how and why people use their power wheelchairs and if the devices are meeting their needs in everyday life. Gaining an understanding of actual power wheelchair use may provide guidance and direction in decision-making for the provision of power wheelchairs.
Cooper et al. (2002) examined the driving characteristics of two groups of people; group one was 10 athletes competing in a local wheelchair games, group two were seven people living in the community regularly using their power wheelchair. On average the athletic group travelled farther and faster than the regular use group, which the authors feel can be largely attributed to the amount of available activities, easily available transportation and social context available at the competition. Overall study findings indicated that the speed at which participants drove their wheelchairs most of the time, was much less than the available maximum speed, with full speed driving only for a few meters occasionally. This was the same for distance travelled; there was more battery life available than was used. This study found little variability in driving speed patterns across participants.
Sonenblum et al. (2008) found that bouts of mobility indoors occurred frequently but at slower speeds and shorter distances than bouts used outdoors. A bout was defined as transitional mobility between stationary activities. The average daily distance travelled was 1.9 kilometers; the distance that was travelled varied across participants as well as across days for the same person. The key finding from this study was that there was no typical pattern of power wheelchair use whether across people or across days for the same person.
Hastings et al. (2011) determined if differences existed between those who used power wheelchairs and those who used manual wheelchairs. The data was collected using questionnaires for self-esteem, function and participation. There were significant differences observed between manual and power wheelchair users, however, there were several confounding factors which the authors acknowledged as limitations but did not account for in the results. Of greatest concern is that the study did not account for varying motor function (e.g., complete versus incomplete injury, antigravity versus gravity-eliminated triceps function). The article suggests that people who sustained a C6-7 motor level injury are better able to maintain physical use of muscles above the injury, move around the environment more and attain employment in a manual wheelchair than power. Given these limitations the results should be interpreted carefully.
To understand the characteristics around the type of wheelchair a person uses, Hunt et al. (2004) surveyed 412 people with spinal cord injury who used a wheelchair for more than 40 hours a week. 97% of manual wheelchairs users had an ultralight, customizable wheelchair and 54% of power wheelchair users had programmable controls with customizable features. Findings also indicated that 40% of manual wheelchair users had at least one additional chair with 73% being an additional manual wheelchair and 27% being power. 57% of power wheelchair users had at least one additional chair with 84% being manual and 16% being power.
Biering-Sorensen et al. (2004) examined mobility aids being used at least 10 years post injury based on data gathered from a larger follow up study. The results from this paper highlight the wide variety of mobility devices are used by people with SCI and that many have more than one device. The study did not account for possible influence of neurological or functional recovery on device use between initial injury and this follow up study. It also did not account for possible changes in mobility devices during the time period from initial injury to post injury 10-45 years later.
Daveler et al. (2015) completed a three-phase observational study to understand the conditions and barriers that users of powered wheelchairs find difficult to drive in/over in the outdoor environment. The ultimate goal of this study was to develop a powered mobility device which addressed many of these issues/challenges. This review focused on the results as they relate to how power wheelchairs are used in the environment therefore only the results from phase 1 & 3 are presented as phase 3 was a trial of a prototype device. The findings indicate that people who use power wheelchairs encounter daily environmental challenges to mobility and that the location of the drive wheel affects how the wheelchair responds to that challenge. However, a particular drive wheel location did not stand out as preferable. Given that many of the difficult conditions idenitified by participants are similar to the items used in many of the wheelchair training programs it is questioned if the challenges could be addressed in part or in whole, with in-depth power wheelchair skills training (e.g. ascending/descending curbs and ramps and traversing door thresholds).
There is level 5 evidence (from one observational study; Hunt et al. 2004) that to meet full mobility needs, a wide variety of mobility devices are often used in conjunction with power wheelchairs.
There is level 5 evidence (from two observational studies; Sonenblum et al. 2008; Cooper et al. 2002) that there are no typical patterns of power wheelchair use in daily life but small bouts of movement or short distances at high speeds were more frequent.
There is level 5 evidence (from one observation study; Daveler et al. 2015) to suggest that there are people who drive power wheelchairs experience daily driving challenges such as door thresholds, and frequently encountered driving situations such as uneven terrain, curb cuts, gravel, and mud.
Considerations for how individuals use power wheelchairs should include more than distance and speed travelled, as most people spend little time travelling any distance compared to the amount of time they spend in their power wheelchair.
For the SCI population power wheelchair provision needs to include at a minimum customizable programmable control.
Consideration should be given to the potential provision of both power and manual wheelchairs to meet basic living needs for the SCI population.