The Resurgence of the Rear-Wheel–Drive Power Chair

Mark Smith in rear-wheel drive chair

Mark Smith showcases rear-wheel–drive technology. Photo courtesy of Laurie Watanabe

As the saying goes, everything old is new again. However, not so much when it comes to rear-wheel–drive power wheelchairs. See, these chairs never actually went away but stayed on a sideline course as the mobility industry moved toward six-wheel power chair technology. Yet, rear-wheel drive is experiencing an upsurge in consumer demand once again, and the reasons have a fascinating tie to clinical needs, consumerism and disability culture.

A Brief History of Power Chairs

Circa 1955, Everest & Jennings introduced the first widely available “motorized” wheelchair in the United States. Because manual wheelchairs were propelled by large rear wheels with small front casters, it was only natural that the first power chairs followed that platform. In fact, the first power chairs were very much “motorized” manual wheelchairs. From the start, in the United States, power chairs were rear-wheel drive.

Throughout the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s, complex rehab power chairs evolved dramatically — from advanced electronics to higher-performance motors to increased durability to power seating — but stayed strikingly true to the rear-wheel drive platform. Along the way, there were influxes of European front-wheel–drive technologies, but rear-wheel drive maintained its position as the industry standard. It offered predictable handling, evolved well into a “power base” configuration and was the mobility platform that helped literally propel the Independent Living Movement, including the Americans With Disabilities Act.

However, in the late '90s and early 2000s, mid- and six-wheel technologies emerged, and clinicians saw tremendous benefits. First, mid- and 6-wheel technologies were dramatically more maneuverable indoors than rear-wheel–drive technology. That is, a user could turn in tighter spaces. Secondly, mid- and six-wheel technologies were natural fits for power seating. Whereas a rear-wheel–drive power chair had large front casters that can interfere with power-articulating foot platforms, a mid- or six-wheel–drive power chair allowed greater leg positioning possibilities, with small front casters and unencumbered space. Additionally, while rear-wheel drives required longer wheelbases or stabilizing anti-tip wheels for power tilt seating, a mid- or six-wheel power chair's rear casters provided optimal stability.

As a result of optimal clinical applications, the younger generation of people with disabilities and recent injuries moved toward mid- and six-wheel technologies, and by 2005, six-wheel technology, specifically, was the industry standard for complex rehab technology.

Why Rear-Wheel Drive Never Went Away

Although six-wheel technology experienced overwhelming popularity and technological advancements, the demand for rear-wheel–drive power chairs never went away — despite industry predictions that rear-wheel–drive demand would diminish so severely that the technology would completely disappear. Why?

First, an entire generation of those with disabilities spent more than four decades using rear-wheel–drive power chairs, and they've had no interest in changing platforms. They know rear-wheel drive meets their mobility needs, and they're sticking with it.

Second, there are clinical aspects to rear-wheel–drive power chairs that many argue remain superior to six-wheel technology. For example, rear-wheel drive technology is based on a principle called “directional stability,” meaning that it naturally tracks straight (as opposed to six-wheel technology, which is more sensitive to oversteering). As a result, those driving with specialty controls, such as switch drivers, or those with lower coordination could find rear-wheel–drive technology easier to steer.

Lastly, with only four wheels on the ground and large front casters, rear-wheel–drive power chairs do exceptionally well on rough terrain because they are less likely to “high-center” and get stuck. (Six-wheel power chairs now have remarkable suspension, but, thanks to front and rear casters, the center drive wheels can still become elevated, causing the chair to lose traction on very rough terrain.)

Where Rear-Wheel–Drive Power Chairs Are Today

With more than a half-century of history, rear-wheel–drive power chairs are extremely advanced. However, what's truly impressive is that manufacturers now see consumers of rear-wheel drive as a distinct demographic and cater to their needs. Today's rear-wheel–drive power chairs are designed for the most aggressive users with battleship-tough components, very large casters, advanced suspension and built-in reflectors. Put simply, these chairs encompass the independent living culture at its best, with technologies that go from the living room to the mean streets without flinching.

The Individual Ideal

When it comes to complex rehab technology, there is no ideal. Rather, the only ideal is what's right for each individual. Fortunately, front- and six-wheel technologies provide liberation to many. But as consumers are once again proving, let us not dismiss the latest, greatest — or, oldie-but-goodie — rear-wheel–drive platform that continues to serve as the ideal for many.

About the Author

Mark E. Smith, born with severe cerebral palsy, is public relations & outreach manager for Quantum Rehab, and is author of Wheels of Change: How Complex Rehab Technology was Born, Evolved and Fosters the Independence of Americans with Disabilities.