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Original Research

Exploring the impact of wheelchair design on user function in a rural South African setting

Surona Visagie, Svenje Duffield, Mariaan Unger

African Journal of Disability; Vol 4, No 1 (2015), 8 pages. doi: 10.4102/ajod.v4i1.171

Submitted: 17 November 2014
Published:  26 June 2015


Background: Wheelchairs provide mobility that can enhance function and community integration. Function in a wheelchair is influenced by wheelchair design.

Objectives: To explore the impact of wheelchair design on user function and the variables that guided wheelchair prescription in the study setting.

Method: A mixed-method, descriptive design using convenience sampling was implemented. Quantitative data were collected from 30 wheelchair users using the functioning every day with a Wheelchair Scale and a Wheelchair Specification Checklist. Qualitative data were collected from ten therapists who prescribed wheelchairs to these users, through interviews. The Kruskal-Wallis test was used to identify relationships, and content analysis was undertaken to identify emerging themes in qualitative data.

Results: Wheelchairs with urban designs were issued to 25 (83%) participants. Wheelchair size, fit, support and functional features created challenges concerning transport, operating the wheelchair, performing personal tasks, and indoor and outdoor mobility. Users using wheelchairs designed for use in semi-rural environments achieved significantly better scores regarding the appropriateness of the prescribed wheelchair than those using wheelchairs designed for urban use (p = <0.01). Therapists prescribed the basic, four-wheel folding frame design most often because of a lack of funding, lack of assessment, lack of skills and user choice.

Conclusion: Issuing urban type wheelchairs to users living in rural settings might have a negative effect on users’ functional outcomes. Comprehensive assessments, further training and research, on long term cost and quality of life implications, regarding provision of a suitable wheelchair versus a cheaper less suitable option is recommended.

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Author affiliations

Surona Visagie, Centre for Rehabilitation studies, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Svenje Duffield, Division of Physiotherapy, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Mariaan Unger, Division of Physiotherapy, Stellenbosch University, South Africa



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