While both mobility scooters and motorised wheelchairs are designed to help people with walking difficulties get around, there are many differences between the two. So is it better to get a mobility scooter or a motorised wheelchair?
Well, it depends. Listed below are the key advantages and disadvantages of mobility scooters relative to motorised wheelchairs.
Advantages of Mobility Scooters
Generally, mobility scooters cost less than motorised wheelchairs. One reason is that mobility scooters need only one motor to propel it forwards and backwards. Turning is done manually by the user using a steering column connected to the front wheel(s).
Motorised wheelchairs, on the other hand, need two motors; one for the right drive wheel, another for the left. This is because in order for a motorised wheelchair to turn, one of the motors needs to spin faster, or even in the opposite direction, relative to the other. And because of the intricate electronics required to regulate this movement, the controllers used by motorised wheelchairs are also much more expensive.
One of the biggest reasons why mobility scooters outsell motorised wheelchairs in Singapore and worldwide is due to visual appeal, especially to senior citizens. Sitting on a wheelchair, motorised or not, makes one feel like a handicap. Driving a mobility scooter, on the other hand, does not have such a social stigma attached, and in fact, has an element of "fun" in it.
Ease of Use
There is a steep learning curve involved with motorised wheelchairs. It takes anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks before one can fully master a motorised wheelchair well enough to handle daily obstacles, such as going through narrow doors and handling slopes.
Comparatively, scooters are much easier to learn, especially if one has previous experience with cars. motorbikes or bicycles. In fact, they are so simple that even 3 or 4 year-old children can learn to operate them. This is a big advantage for elderly users, who take a relatively longer time to learn anything new.
Disadvantages of Mobility Scooters
Wider Turning Radius
Motorised wheelchairs are able to do 360 degree turns, pivoting on their drive wheels, which makes them very suitable for indoor use.
Mobility scooters, on the other hand, turn more like mini scooters, so a 3-point turn is often necessary when doing u-turns. This why why the main users of mobility scooters are people who are still able to walk, but not for long distances. These users still walk within their house, but use the mobility scooter to go outside, such as to the nearby market, clinic or coffeeshop.
a) 3-wheeled scooters have a smaller turning radius than 4-wheelers.
Low Ground Clearance
Mobility scooters typically have a lower ground clearance than motorised wheelchairs. This is usually not an issue as most places in Singapore are already equipped with wheelchair ramps.
However, many handicapped people in Singapore do use scooters on the MRT or Wheelchair-Accessible Buses (WAB's) travel long distances. If a scooter does not have sufficient ground clearance, the undercarriage may sometimes get stuck on the train or the bus, resulting in inconvenice to the user, the bus/train captain as well as fellow passengers.
So if you forsee that you will need to use the scooter on the MRT or WAB, please check with the vendor whether it is suitable for use in such places.
a) For use on MRT train, minimum wheel diameter should be 8 inches, otherwise there is risk of the wheels dropping into the gap between the MRT train and platform.
b) Scooter dimensions should not exceed 120 cm x 70 cm (48" x 28"), as that is the maximum size for mobility scooters allowed on MRT trains and WABs.
Generally, motorised wheelchairs have a tendency to flip backwards, but are usually equipped with rear anti-tippers, which eliminates such a risk.
Comparatively, mobility scooters, though generally safe, do require users to cultivate some common-sense driving habits, such as slowing down before doing a sharp turn. Otherwise, there is a risk of the mobility scooter flipping sideways.
a) 4-wheeled scooters are more stable than 3-wheelers.
Need the use of both hands
Mobility scooters are generally 2-handed machines. You use one hand to press the forward throttle, and the other hand to press the reverse throttle. So severely hemiplegic patients (e.g. stroke victims) may have difficulty handling the scooter.
However, if the stroke is not too serious, and the user's active hand is still strong enough to press both forward and reverse throttles, and turn the steering column at the same time, then mobility scooters can still be used. Otherwise, it is better for the user to choose a motorised wheelchair.
Also, a recent development is the use of delta tillers (see picture below) for mobility scooters. These are U-shaped tillers which allow the user to either use the "thumb push" or "finger-pull" method of driving on either throttle, effectively allowing one-handed driving for hemiplegic users.
a) The best way to find out whether a hemiplegic user can handle mobility scooters is to physically let him try driving one before buying.
Mobility scooters are good for persons who are still able to sit upright without torso support, so it is not recommended for patients who need very good back support. So for patients who have lost the ability to sit upright without back support should go for motorised wheelchairs instead of mobility scooters.
In general, so long as the user's medical condition is not too serious, mobility scooters offer very important advantages such as low cost, ease of use and a positive self-image. It is great for people who are still able to walk indoors (e.g. at home or in the office), but just need a little bit more help when travelling outdoors. This includes a huge group of elderly people who suffer from arthritis, mild stroke, bowed knees and other lower limb or joint problems. But for persons with more serious medical conditions, a motorised wheelchair may be more suitable.
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