I've often thought about what the perfect world for wheelchair users would look like, and it inevitably involves a lot of large, flat, open spaces. Unfortunately, in the real world, it's all too common for me to encounter narrow, claustrophobic hallways and tight turns. The struggle involved in traversing these spaces leaves me wondering whether it is even worthwhile to see what's on the other side.
Slim corridors and tight spaces are a harsh reality for most wheelchair users, but they don't have to be an impediment! If you have the right wheelchair, you can easily zip down skinny hallways and maneuver around tight curves. But what wheelchair would that be? And what features would it have to make this easier?
Below, I'll give you some recommendations and answer some common questions about this topic.
Average wheelchairs can measure up to 32 inches wide, with most ranging from 21 to 30 inches wide. However, sometimes the seat cushion itself can measure up to 30 inches, which means the entire wheelchair will certainly be larger than 32 inches! In fact, it's common for wheelchairs to be up to 10 inches wider than the cushion measurement.
And of course, electric and power chairs are often beefier than manual ones, with some reaching up to 40 inches wide or more depending on the weight of the wheelchair user.
However, while mobility scooters and electric wheelchairs might have larger physical dimensions, manual wheelchairs also require arm room on either side in order to effectively and comfortably maneuver yourself, which should be taken into account.
Nowadays, the standard doorway width is around 32 inches, with many doorways reaching up to 36 inches. However, a decent number of doors fall on the low end, averaging around 23 to 28 inches, and some can be even smaller! Older buildings especially tend to have smaller doorways and can pose a real problem for wheelchair users.
If you've put the answers to the past two questions together, then the problem we face should have revealed itself. The average adult wheelchair size and the average doorway size are simply too close for comfort.
According to the ADA accessibility standards, the minimum acceptable distance from the face of the door to the other end of the door frame is 32 inches, which happens to coincide with the standard doorway width. However, how you make this measurement is important – it can't just be the width of the gap in the wall as if there were no door there, because the door itself takes up part of that space!
This means that even if the door frame is 32 inches wide, the actual width a wheelchair can travel through is less than 32 inches, and would not be acceptable by ADA standards.
Don't despair – all of this information refers to the average wheelchair size. Narrow wheelchair dimensions will yield much better results, and if you have a narrow wheelchair, you'll have no problem getting through doorways that don't comply with the ADA standard. Chairs like this are common in regions of the world with older architecture, like Europe. An extra narrow wheelchair can even get you through tiny, 20-inch doors!
You'll probably want to shop for narrow, indoor wheelchairs, since dimensions matter most when you have lots of doorways and constricting spaces. In fact, I've found that many of the features you'll need to navigate narrow spaces also come in handy when storing your chair. The smaller, lighter and more maneuverable it is, the easier it is to store!
In particular, I'd recommend a narrow wheelchair with removable arms or a narrow lightweight wheelchair, since these features would give you even more flexibility with your motion. A narrow transport wheelchair might be the way to go, since transport models will naturally be smaller and therefore able to maneuver through smaller spaces.
Removable arms are always a good idea, since removing them will allow you to squeeze through smaller spaces if need be. Some wheelchairs also have swing-away armrests or legrests, which function similarly to save space.
Cushion size is also one of the most important factors when choosing a wheelchair. I can't say it enough...cushion size is not the same as the actual width of the wheelchair!
If you're looking to fit through a standard, 32-inch door, your cushion size shouldn't be more than 22 inches. In fact, if you'd like a good chance at slipping through the narrower 28-inch doors, you should be looking mainly at cushion sizes of 16 or 18 inches!
Usually, the wheelchair itself ends up being 8 inches wider than the cushion. However, some wheelchairs have a smaller difference between the cushion and overall width, so it is important to obtain both of these measurements before you make a purchase.
Below, I'll take you through some of my favorite narrow manual wheelchairs.
Overall width: 24''
Seat width: 18''
I love the Silver Sport 1 because it is a no-frills, economical option for a manual wheelchair that can get through many narrow doorways. It can support riders up to 300 pounds, and when closed, its width is a mere 11 inches, making it super easy to store and transport.
Other things I like about this chair are its padded armrests and easy-to-clean nylon upholstery.
Overall width: 25''
Seat width: 18''
If you'd like a little more luxury than the last option, but still want to be able to fit into small spaces, I'd recommend another Silver Sport model by Drive Medical. Though it is an inch wider than its more basic counterpart, this model allows you to recline, a feature anyone is sure to enjoy. Plus, its swing-away legrests and durable, lightweight frame allow for even more ease of motion.
Overall width: 24''
Seat width: 18''
The Blue Streak is a narrow lightweight wheelchair that can support up to 250 pounds. I particularly like its flip-back, padded desk-length arm. Narrow wheelchairs with removable arms or arms that easily fold back, like this one, allow you to get as close as you need to any desk or table, which is another tight space that many wheelchairs make it difficult to occupy.
Plus, the Blue Streak is a compact and economical choice, with a width of only 12.5 inches when folded up!
Overall width: 23.5'' to 25.5''
Seat width: 16'', 18'', 20''
Easy transport requires options and convenience, and that's what this awesome convertible chair is all about. All you have to do is push the quick-release axles, and what was once a standard wheelchair with 24'' wheels becomes a transport chair with 8'' wheels. How nifty is that?
Plus, this chair has a wealth of those other useful features that I told you to look out for. It boasts removable desk-length armrests, swing-away footrests, and even a fold-down backrest. These perks make it easily portable and also incredibly versatile. Its overall width depends on the seat width you order, but even its maximum overall width is still pretty good when it comes to fitting through narrow doors!
When people traditionally think of power wheelchairs, they picture large, bulky machines. Not anymore! Here are my favorite compact electric wheelchair models:
Overall width: 21.5''
Seat widths available: 16'' or 18''
Cushion sizes available: 16'' x 16'', 16'' x 18'', 18'' x 18''
The WHILL Model Ci is a narrow power wheelchair that prides itself on its short wheelbase and compact size. It also has precise, state-of-the-art handling that allows it to turn on a dime – a handy feature when navigating tight spaces! In fact, it boasts a 45% smaller wheelchair turning radius than tiller-controlled devices.
It's portable too, disassembling into three light pieces, and can carry people up to 250 pounds. And with a total width of 21.5 inches, it will have no problem navigating through ADA accessible doors, and even smaller ones.
Other things I like about the WHILL – while perhaps not too relevant to its ability to sneak through small spaces – are its armrests, back rest cushion, USB port and the super cool iPhone app that connects to your chair via Bluetooth. Plus, it's an excellent chair for all terrains, so it can easily transition from indoors to outdoors and vice-versa.
Overall width: 21.25''
Seat width: 17'' x 17''
Another electric scooter that is versatile and easily disassembles, the Go-Go Sport can hold people up to 325 pounds. It's a lightweight mobility device, with a 36'' turning radius and a compactable, foldable seat. My favorite feature is the nifty basket up front, and I like the novelty and simplicity of having three wheels instead of four.
The overall width of its base is 21.25 inches, making this another excellent option to scoot through narrow doors.
Overall width: 20''
For adding an entire wheel, Pride's 4 Wheel Go-Go Sport model still manages to be super compact. It's a transportable mobility scooter that can hold up to 325 pounds.
Like the 3-wheel model, it breaks into 5 lightweight pieces for easy transport, and one of the features I love is its deck basket for additional storage.
Overall width: 22'' or 24''
Seat width: 16'', 18''
If you're a fan of the manual wheelchair look, but the electric wheelchair power, then this is the perfect option for you. Besides its obvious versatility and ease of transport, I like how you can choose a back height for the chair (anywhere from 15'' to 19''). It can hold up to 300 pounds and even has a programmable controller, so you can further personalize it.
Additionally, this has many of those neat features I told you about earlier: flip-up armrests, swing-away footrests, and even optional legrests. If you flip or swing these away, you can get close-up access to objects that you might not be able to achieve in other chairs. Also useful is the wheelchair's small turning radius of 23 inches.
So there you have it. It is not impossible to navigate the narrow world in a wheelchair. In fact, it's even possible to power through doors that are too small to meet ADA standards on a brand new, snazzy powerchair.
Check out Scootaround’s selection of scooters, wheelchairs, and powerchairs online at https://shop.scootaround.com, or speak with a Sales Specialist toll-free at 1-888-441-7575 ext. 6236.
Cory Lee is a wheelchair user, travel addict, and accessible travel writer. On his blog, Curb Free with Cory Lee, he hopes to inspire others to roll out of their comfort zones and see all the beauty our world has to offer.
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