Wheelchair vs. Scooter – What’s the Difference?

Picture of consumer style power wheelchair.Picture of a basic scooter

In this issue I wanted to discuss power wheelchair and scooters.  People often use the terms power wheelchair and scooter interchangeably.  Both of the devices have their pros and cons.  I wanted to take this opportunity to get the story straight.

DISCLAIMER:  The purpose of this article is to provide a GENERAL, BASIC introduction to this topic.  I will not be discussing all of the possibilities of these devices.  If you have specific questions, contact us to discuss your situation in detail.

First some definitions.  A scooter is a mobility device that has 3 or 4 wheels, a tiller for steering, and a swivel seat.

Picture of a basic scooter
Because of the way a scooter is driven, this device requires good trunk control, good arm strength and mobility, as well as fine motor control.  In general, scooters are not considered rehab equipment, but more of a consumer product.  This means that the seat and driving functions cannot be customized for individual needs.  What you see is what you get.

Scooters have a much larger turning radius than a power wheelchair, and therefore are very difficult to navigate inside the home or in tight spaces.  But, there are applications where a scooter may be preferred.  For those who do not have special seating needs and just need a method of transportation outside the home, a scooter is an economical solution.  Also, a scooter is much easier to transport.  There are scooters that can be broken down and put into a trunk, or they can be transported on a light duty lift off of the back of your car.

A wheelchair has 4 or 6 wheels, a drive system, and a seating system.
Picture of consumer style power wheelchair.Picture of Rehab Style Power Wheelchair

Power wheelchairs are much more flexible and customizable for an individual’s needs.  Power wheelchairs are really three components combined into a single system – the base, the seating, and the drive mechanism.

There are three basic types of bases – Rear Wheel, Mid Wheel, and Front Wheel drive.

Picture of a Rear Wheel Chair
Example of Rear Wheel Drive

A rear wheel base has the power wheel (the large wheel that is connected to the motors) towards the back of the chair.  These chairs tend to be easier to drive in a straight line.  So, if someone is using an alternate drive system, this might be a consideration.  Rear wheel drive chairs can be easier to drive for some because the chair turns from the back, so there is less of a chance that the chair will get caught on things behind the driver’s head.

Picture of a Mid Wheel Drive Power Wheelchair
Example of Mid Wheel Drive

A mid wheel drive chair has the smallest turning radius.  The chair is able to turn from the center and therefore can navigate tight spaces well.  Some individuals may have difficulty keeping the chair on a straight line because it is so maneuverable.  Also, some clients may have difficulty driving a mid wheel chair because they have to account for the chair behind them when making turns or navigating tight spaces.  Most users can acclimate to this quickly.  But, if a user has been driving a rear wheel drive chair for a long time, making the switch to a mid wheel drive may be difficult.  In these cases, a quality trial should be done to make sure the client is able and willing to make the transition to mid wheel drive.  In today’s market, the mid wheel drive chair is the predominant design available.

Example of Front Wheel Drive
Example of Front Wheel Drive

A front wheel drive chair is basically a rear wheel drive chair flipped around.  One of the major benefits of a front wheel drive chair is that the power wheel is in the front, and this may make getting over obstacles easier.  If a bump is encountered, it is the wheels with power that will encounter the bump first and the user may be able to power over bumps that would require more speed in other styles of wheelchairs.

For seating systems on power wheelchair – the sky is the limit.  In a power wheelchair, the seating system is totally separate from the base, so the back, cushion, armrests, headrest, leg rests, power options, etc are all chosen to suit the client.  Power wheelchairs can be fitted with power tilt, recline, elevating leg rests, and seat elevators.  In contrast, some scooters have the option of a seat elevator, but scooter seats cannot be fitted with pressure relieving cushions or other rehab type seating options.

For drive controls, the standard drive mechanism is a joystick.

Picture of a wheelchair joystick
Example of a Wheelchair Joystick

With a joystick, the user has what is called proportional control.  What this means is that the farther the joystick moves from center, the faster the chair will go (like a gas petal in a car).  If the user cannot physically access a standard joystick, there are some changes that can be made to the joystick itself, but there are also alternate driving methods.  Here are some examples of alternate drives:

Picture of Mini Joystick
Mini Joystick

A mini joystick is a small device that operates similar to the standard joystick, but it takes MUCH smaller movements to operate.  The mini joystick maintains proportional control.

Picture of Head Array
Head Array

A head array is a headrest that has buttons built into it to allow the user to drive the wheelchair with motions from their head.  A head array can be a proportional drive system, but it can also be a latched system.  A latched driving system is one where the speed is set and the user tells the chair to go forward, backward, turn right, turn left.  This is typically a slower method of driving.  But, for those with limited physical movement, this may be a preferred method to provide independent control of the chair.

Picture of Sip and Puff Drive
Sip and Puff

Sip and Puff drive is a drive system that allows a user to drive their wheelchair by sipping and puffing into a straw connected to the electronics of their wheelchair.  This is a latched system.

There are other alternate drive systems out there.  Any person with any reliable physical movement can drive a wheelchair independently.  Scooters cannot accept any of these specialty electronics.

So, overall, a scooter is a vehicle that is used primarily outside for people with disabilities that do not need rehab seating or specialty controls.  Power wheelchairs are devices that can be customized to fit any disability and provide independent control for individuals with any useable movement.

This is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to the options and considerations for choosing a mobility device.  To schedule an evaluation, please click here to contact us.

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About improveability

I am a rehab engineer trying to make the world a better place through assistive technology.
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