The wheelchair has been used for centuries as a mobility aid for individuals with injury, illness, and disability.

In the hospital environment, wheelchairs continue to be an essential part of patient care, although their design and mode of use has changed over time.

The design of the wheelchair we are familiar with today was developed from earlier models in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and typically had a footrest, two large wheels, and one or two smaller wheels at the rear. They were usually pushed by another person using handles behind the seat.

Three-wheeled wheelchair with single footrest, ca 1910.

The self-propelled wheelchair was designed with hand breaks connected to a bicycle chain mechanism around the two front wheels. This allowed the user to steer, stop, and propel themselves with minimal assistance.

Two wheeled chair with brake leaver handles ca 1930.

During and post-World War II, the collapsible wheelchair was in high demand. It consisted of a metal crossframe which could be folded down, was cost efficient, and mass produced.

WWII-era collapsible chair.

Later wheelchairs were designed with adjustable backs and arms to enable modification of the chair to the patient. Straps or Velcro allowed cushions of varying shape to be attached for comfort.

Manual roller chair from Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre with base which allows for cushion attachment, ca 1990’s – 2000’s.

With the advancements in technology in recent years, what innovations do you think could benefit the future wheelchair?

Written by Jasmin Clark, CALHN Health Museum.