At some point in time, every wheelchair user is going to need to be fitted. Yet, if you do not have an OT (Occupational Therapist) fit you, you probably don’t know exactly where to start or what to measure. Let me preface this article by saying that this advice is not a substitute for a professional fitting. I am not a professional. So here we go:
There are three basic measurements you need before you five into the wide world of wheeling. There are others, but they are generally adjustable on the chair. There are two measurements which are NOT adjustable on 99.9% of wheelchairs: Seat width and depth. It is also a good idea to know your seat to footrest measurement, so this article details how to measure yourself to get these three measurements.
- You’ll need some sort of surface to sit on. A coffee table works well. You’ll see why
- Two heavy books. They don’t have to be OT texts, LOL.
- Tape measure.
Seat Width: The first, and probably most important measurement, is seat width. Most people try to go with the smallest width possible, because a narrower fits easier through doorways than a wider chair. You also want a narrow chair to avoid slumping to one side of the chair and creating postural abnormalities. Most people want a chair that “fits like a glove”
To measure seat width, sit on the coffee table. Place the books on either side of your hips at the widest point. For a “glove fit” chair, you’ll want to have the books touching your hips. For a little extra room you’ll want the books almost touching, but not quite. It is good to have a little extra room if you have no sensation, as if you use sideguards, they could press against your hips and cause pressure sores.
Once you are situated like so, measure the space between the books. You can have a helper do this while you are sitting on the table, or you can get up and measure yourself:
The space between the books is your seat width. You can go an inch narrower and be snug (if you have sensation) or go an inch wider and have some space for a winter coat. This is your preference.
Seat Depth: Seat depth is perhaps the second most important aspect of chair size. If your seat is too deep, either the sling will cut into the back of your knees, or you’ll slouch. If your seat is too narrow, your knees will stick out and you will not have as much of an area to distribute pressure. Some people like short seats, so again your choice of seat depth is a personal preference, but this will give you an idea of what you need.
Again sitting at the coffee table, scoot back until the back of your legs are almost touching the end of the coffee table:
Sit up straight (unlike our model here!) Place a book behind your back. Now measure from the book to the end of the coffee table:
This is your MAXIMUM seat depth. I would recommend going at least an inch shorter than your measurement. The seat sling will stretch over time, and you’ll need space to reach under your legs to move them. Some people go up to three inches shorter. Again this is a personal preference. Our model measures 16X18, and he uses a 15X16 chair. An 18 inch depth chair bothered the back of his legs. His knees stick out and the fit is snug, but he loves the way his chair feels. I measure 14X17, but I use a 15X16 chair too, because my weight fluctuates up a little bit sometimes. My hips do not touch the sideguards, and our model’s hips are a little snug on the sideguards.
Seat to Footrest: This is one of those hit or miss measurements that will probably need to be tweaked no matter what you do, but it is important to get a general idea of your seat to footrest measurement, especially if you are very tall or very short. To start, sit on your coffee table again. Prop your feet up on books so that your feet are not dangling and you do not feel like the edge of the coffee table is putting too much pressure on your legs. Try to get the pressure evenly distributed.
Measure from the bottom of your leg to the bottom of your feet, while wearing shoes:
Subtract the depth of the cushion (don’t let roho’s fool you, they might be four inches thick, but they should only lift you about an inch off your seat when you sink into them) and you have your seat to footrest height. Unless you are absolutely sure what your seat to footrest height is, DO NOT get a chair that does not have an adjustable height footrest. Just makes sure it can adjust within a range that will probably fit you and allow for a little playing around. If your seat to footrest height (with no cushion) is 12”, you probably don’t want a chair that adjusts from 12”-16”, as you’re in the end of the range.
So there you go. You now know how to take the most basic measurements for your chair.
Other important, measurements to consider:
Back Height: This is adjustable on about 80-90% of chairs. You generally do not want something which is taller than the bottom of your scapulas (shoulder blades) or lower than your waistline. You’ll have to fiddle with your chair to find the perfect height for you, and this is a totally personal choice.
Footrest Width: So what do you do if you get a footrest what is too narrow for your feet to fit in while wearing your favorite pair of shoes? Exactly. Some chairs have really narrow footrests because they were used for small people or amputees. Make sure you know how wide it is.
Rear Tire Size: I would say 75% of chairs have 24” tires. If you’re super tall and need a tall chair, or are large, or have long arms, you might want to try 25” or 26” wheels. They are also easier to push up hills, as you have a bigger “gear”
Centre of Gravity: if this is your first chair, you NEED and adjustable center of gravity. This is the position of the rear axle of the chair. Too far forward, and you’ll tip over backwards. Too far back, and it will be hard to do wheelies. It will be one of those things you’ll want to mess around with.
Your resident OTD/S
Rorschach (Registered) 2007-08-05: Awesome. I love tutorials, and especially this one. Thank you very much.
Julian (Registered) 2007-08-06: Nice idea. But, for all you budding OTs out there. You have to remember that someone with an SCI will probably not be able to sit at all on a coffee table! I speak from experience(!) getting my gf to sit up straight out of her chair is nigh on impossible as she has no control of her muscles below her sholders and if I sat her on a coffee table she would fall flat on her back (or front!).
Claire (Registered) 2007-08-25: This was needed, thanks mouse. I have one question. Where you say “scoot back until the back of your legs are almost touching the end of the coffee table”. I have read that you should leave space between the edge of the table and your legs in order to allow you to get your hand under your leg for transfers or otherwise moving your leg (with your hand).
That said, I left *too* much space and I think my chair is a bit too short.
Wheelmouse (Registered) 2007-10-05: To Julian: You are incorrect in your assumption that someone with a SCI will not be able to sit unassisted on a coffee table. Most people with low level SCI, especially if incomplete, can balance unassisted on a mat or table surface such as the coffee table. But you are correct that people with higher level injuries may not be able to do so. For those who can’t, I would recommend a professional seating Eval. Obviously, safety and the abilities of the individual should always be considered.