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When discussing wheelchair “brakes,” there are several distinctions to be made.
Wheelchair Braking Via Hand
Most wheelchairs do not have a braking mechanism that slows the chair in the same sense that your automobile brakes slow and/or stop it. In a manual wheelchair, slowing is controlled by a user’s hands on the wheels or wheel rails. Electric wheelchairs have motor/gear mechanisms for slowing.
Wheel Locks Are Like Parking Brakes
Most wheelchairs do have wheel locks, which are as vital to the chair as wheels. You can think of wheel locks like a parking brake. They hold the chair stationary; keeping it from rolling. This is especially critical when transferring someone in or out of the chair, when needing the chair to remain to remain stationary on an incline (such as a sidewalk ramp while waiting for traffic to pass), and while attempting to perform tasks like maneuvering weighty objects (think: full grocery bags on a table or counter) that would otherwise cause the chair to roll at an inopportune moment. The most common type of wheel lock involves a hand-controlled “push/pull” lever that presses a metal bar against the rubber tire part of a wheel to prevent it from rolling. There are also scissor locks often used by active- and sport-wheelchair users, as well as hub locks that secure the wheel’s hub rather than the tire.
What is the Strongback Mobility Attendant Brake?
Besides hand-braking and wheel locks, there are attendant brakes. Wheelchair manufacturer Strongback Mobility produces a hybrid attendant brake mechanism that is part slowing mechanism and part wheel lock. The attendant pushing the wheelchair can slow and/or arrest its motion by squeezing a brake lever attached to the wheelchair’s push handles. The brake lever is similar in appearance to a bicycle’s brake lever but operates from an always-on position. Essentially, the mechanism’s default is that the chair’s wheel lock is on so that the chair is immobile. When the attendant squeezes the brake handle, it pulls a cable that releases the wheel lock so that the wheels can roll.
Spring-Loaded, Attendant-Controlled Wheel Locks Provide Exceptional Chair Control
The more the brake handle is squeezed, the more free the wheels are to roll. With dual attendant brakes (one on each side of the chair), this gives the attendant exception control over the chair’s motion, allowing for more precise maneuvering and mechanical assistance in more difficult terrain situations, such as declines that can lead to runaway wheelchairs. It also means that the chair is automatically locked in place when nobody is pushing it. No more inadvertent chair runaways.
Strongback Mobility’s attendant brakes are available as options and/or standard equipment on several of their wheelchair models. The braking mechanism is a spring loaded wheel lock that, by default, presses against the wheel’s rubber tire to immobilize the chair. When an attendant squeezes the brake handle, it pulls against the wheel lock’s spring to release the wheels. Releasing the brake lever returns the brake to its “on” position, preventing the chair from moving.
The two attendant brake wheelchairs included in our comparison range in price from $500 to $900. The differences are not necessarily in quality. Those shopping for wheelchairs should pay special attention to their individual needs and how each wheelchair addresses those needs.
How Wheelchairs With Attendant Brakes Compare
Because wheelchairs are often highly-customized to individual user needs, it is a challenge to make an apples-to-apples comparison on attendant brakes alone. To make our comparison fair, we took a look at two different manufacturers with similar implementations of attendant brakes on comparable wheelchairs.
Strongback Mobility Lightweight 24 Wheelchair with Attendant Brake
Strongback Mobility has a particular focus on ergonomics and lightweight materials in their line of high-end wheelchairs. They declare that “rigid and bulky are a thing of the past.” This model features a light tubular frame that is foldable and compact. It incorporates a patented posture support design to comfortably support the user’s spine with a natural lumbar curve. This prevents slouching and spinal disc damage. Swing-away, detachable footrests provide foot support, but are easily adjusted, moved out of the way, or eliminated when not in use. Numerous Velcro adjustment points allow the chair to be highly customized to its individual user. This eliminates the need to add bulky pillows or cushions to fit the chair to its user. Padded armrests continue the emphasis on user fit and comfort. The chair weighs 26.4 lbs. There is a larger model for those requiring different proportions.
Trailing “outrigger” casters prevent backward tip-overs and (optional; though the unit/price reviewed here includes them) integrated attendant brakes improve the chair’s safety factor by preventing unintended roll-always, as well as help in controlling chair maneuverability on inclines and declines.
Can be found on Amazon for about $750.00, depending on options.
Ease of Use ****
Strongback Mobility’s emphasis on lightness, fold-ability, and user adjustability make this one of the easiest wheelchairs to use. The Velcro adjustment
straps can take some time to adjust for best comfort, but this is balanced by the highly-customized level of adjustment they provide.
Assembly Time *****
Folds so compactly, it arrives mostly assembled.
Design Quality *****
This company focuses on design and achieves a high level.
One year parts and manufacturing.
Emphasis on ergonomics is an exception in the wheelchair world
Highly customizable helps with user comfort
Attendant brakes implementation is both high-quality and easy to use/maintain
Customized adjustments take time/effort to accomplish
As far as we could determine, it only comes in blue
Hi-Fortune Lightweight Manual Wheelchair
The Hi-Fortune is also a lightweight (21 lbs) and foldable wheelchair. It is constructed from a magnesium alloy and features several quick-release mechanisms to ease the folding process. It also includes a carrying bag to make it easier to check as airline luggage. Large rear wheels are designed for improved performance on uneven and outdoor surfaces, while top handbrakes make it easier for an attendant to control speed, especially on hills. (These brakes can be locked off to allow user mobility without an attendant.) Swing-away leg rests and padded armrests aid in convenience and comfort.
Can be found on Amazon for about $500.00.
Ease of Use ***
The chair’s lightness and emphasis on portability make it easy to use. We did find the quick-release a struggle at times.
Assembly Time ***
No tools required, as it arrives mostly assembled. You have to attach the footrests and rear “outrigger” safety rollers. Quick release wheels are designed to aid in travel stowage, even in small vehicles.
Design Quality ***
We found it wide at 17.5 inches (and had issues with a narrow door), but it has an impressive 220 lb weight capacity for such a light machine.
One year frame and components warranty against defects
Very light, yet solid construction
The attendant brakes were more adaptable for a self-mobile user scenario
We preferred the white color to the competitions blue
Definitely not as adjustable as the competition
Several items standard on the competition are options here
Only available in the 17” size
With only two items to compare, it is tempting to just declare a winner and a loser and call it a day. However, that is not possible here. Because wheelchairs need to be highly-customized to their users, it is important to match features and user needs.
Both models we looked at did an excellent job of incorporating attendant brakes, but we found the Hi-Fortune’s had a better mechanism for locking them off so that a user could roll about on their own. While we love the ergonomic focus and highly-customizable fit of the Strongback chair, that might serve only to frustrate some users. Sometimes cushions are the better way to go. The Hi-Fortune’s wider tires really do help in rougher terrain, but add to a chunkier profile. (Though, this is arguably an instance of form vs. function.)
On the other hand, the Hi-Fortune is a generic design when compared to the Strongback’s almost sleekness. We also appreciated the lower sides on the Strongback. They rise just enough to prevent a user from sliding out. Additionally, for the Strongback’s higher price, you get several items standard that are options on the Hi-Fortune.
Start With A Checklist
One recommendation we received from experienced chair users: Make a checklist of what you really need. Size is a major factor: Will it fit the user? Will it fit buildings they frequent? What level of portability do you need? Can the user operate the chair entirely on their own? Also, consider the attendant: Are they comfortable pushing that particular model? Can they easily fold/stow it on their own? Can they operate the braking mechanisms as intended? Either chair here accomplishes our primary objective: effective attendant handbrakes that help ease the attendant workload and keep the user safe from unintended roll-away. Absent the other critical user criteria; we declare a tie.