Where do I start with choosing a mobility aid?

[Image description: A photograph of my legs in a wheelchair. The wheelchair frame is only partially visible, but you can see it is black, with rainbow spoke guards. I am wearing blue runners and black three-quarter-length tights with blue spots.]

[Image description: A photograph of my legs in a wheelchair. The wheelchair frame is only partially visible, but you can see it is black, with rainbow spoke guards. I am wearing blue runners and black three-quarter-length tights with blue spots.]

I’ve had a lot of questions in the last few years about how I knew it was time to transition to using mobility aids, and how to know when it’s time to get a new one, so I’ve written a quick crash course in my own personal experiences as a starting point to assist in research.

Before I say any of this, there are a few obvious caveats. I’m straight up going to recommend that if you are thinking about mobility aids, you try to find an Occupational Therapist and/or Physiotherapist who supports your personal mobility goals, and work with them to find the best solution. However, I’m also going to warn you that not every medical professional will be on-board with your goals, and it’s good to listen to and consider professional advice, their core beliefs might just not align with yours.

Obviously maintaining muscle tone and mobilising regularly is really important for ongoing maintenance of health. However, so are appropriate pain management, socialisation, and the ability to go about your life and get sh*t done. For me, mobility aids are about balancing all those different things. Some medical professionals I’ve seen over the years have disagreed with the way I choose to balance them, but I found the right team for me in the end.

In my own experience, and talking to others who have gone through this process, if you are thinking about a new mobility aid, it’s probably because you need it. The thing about aids is that our society is so inaccessible that if you find it easier to get around with whatever aid you use than without it, you probably need it.

The main argument against my getting mobility aids was definitely loss of muscle tone caused by relying on them instead of exercising normally. The thing is, I wasn’t leaving the house because I literally couldn’t do that ‘normal’ walking. So I wasn’t getting that exercise and muscle tone anyway. TBQH, I have more strength and endurance now than I did before I got my manual wheelchair.

Cane/Walking Stick

These are definitely the easiest and cheapest mobility aid to try out. We’re talking a collapsible cane with a fun pattern for less than $30. You can even get walking sticks with little built in stools for when you need a break!

Pros:

  • They’re pretty good if your problems mostly occur in one leg at a time, or are usually worse in one leg at a time;

  • Can help with balance;

  • Can help with using stairs;

  • Provides a visible reason that you need a seat in public (e.g. on public transport) or when you’re about to have an unscheduled floor meeting.

Cons:

  • They’re not super helpful if you are having bad problems with both legs, or when you can’t weight bear at all on one leg for a long period of time;

  • They put a lot of pressure on your wrist, even if you get one with an ergonomic grip to help your hands.

Crutches

There are three main types of crutches: axillary, forearm, and gutter.

Axillary crutches are the ones you get if you have a sympathetic doctor when you sprain your ankle – most of your weight is borne on your underarms, which can cause some serious problems particularly in the long term.

Forearm crutches are used for more chronic conditions or longer term rehabilitation – the idea is similar to a walking stick, but with a loose plastic band around your forearm for extra stability.

Gutter crutches are the most uncommon of these three because they’re super inconvenient, so they’re really only used when pressure on hands/wrists is just as detrimental as pressure on the legs. The forearm is strapped to a panel on the crutch rests at a right angle to the shaft of the crutch, and to the upper arm.

I use a brand of crutches called Smart Crutches, which are basically a cross between forearm and gutter crutches. They’re more expensive than regular crutches, but are also a lot more comfortable. Most importantly for me, the angle can be adjusted from 15-90 degrees to provide extra support to your wrist.

Pros:

  • Can be used when both legs need support, or when one leg cannot weight bear at all;

  • Help with balance;

  • Can still be used getting up and down stairs and navigating public transport etc with relative convenience.

Cons:

  • You can’t carry anything, even a meal or drink from counter to table, and other things like shoulder bags are also a no-go;

  • More expensive than a cane – absolute minimum is $40 for a pair, but it’s easy to spend $100-$200 for a nice/comfortable pair.

Walker/Rollator

I haven’t actually used these outside of showrooms, because unfortunately using them there and my research showed that they weren’t the right aid for me, at least at the moment. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t the right one for you!

Pros:

  • More stability and help with balance than crutches or a cane can provide because they have more than two points of contact with the ground at set and stable angles;

  • Generally speaking, they are more easily collapsable and lightweight than a wheelchair;

  • Can carry things like a dinner tray or small amount of groceries on an attached tray/trolly feature;

  • You can get forearm walkers to take the pressure off your wrists.

Cons:

  • They don’t work if you can’t bear weight on one of your legs;

  • You can’t use them on stairs, which may block you from accessing some building, public transport, etc.;

  • They can be really expensive – you’re looking at $50-$1,000 or even more depending on features and quality.

Wheelchair

These come with such a wide range of features that one can provide a completely different experience from the next. You can go fully manual, fully electric, different types of power assist units, even stuff like this.

Pros:

  • They are so good for balance – seriously the decrease in unscheduled floor visits is incredible;

  • Good for travelling long distances, particularly when you have an electric chair or a friend to help push your manual one;

  • If you can sit, you can find a wheelchair that will work for you (although they also come in the standing variety)

  • You can get them pretty collapsable with wheels popping off, everything else can fold in (some of them get down to 10kg and possible to fit in overhead airline luggage space);

  • You can get extra features like trays, wheelchair backpacks, cupholders – basically depending on your funding options you can find a way to do most things with a wheelchair that you could do without (including going to the beach or swimming).

Cons:

  • They are not designed for chronic pain, they are designed for mobility – that means that if sitting upright is painful to you, the longer you stay in the chair the more pain you will be in (there are some ways to minimise this, like motorised wheelchairs with tilt-in-space functions);

  • If you have issues with fatigue or grip pushing a manual wheelchair will be a serious struggle, particularly up ramps and hills (not as big a struggle as in a hospital chair, and always make sure your tires are pumped up or you’ll be making things harder than they need to be);

  • You can’t go anywhere with stairs, which will lock you out of a lot of buildings and public transport, and will mean that sometimes you have to go a very very very long way around to get where you’re going;

  • They are so expensive. Oh my goodness. Pretty much a $400 minimum, going up to well over $10,000.


There it is, my quick attempt at summarising a vast multitude of facts with all the bias and inaccuracies that a single person’s perspective will bring. There are a few other mobility aids I haven’t included, such a knee scooters or motorised scooters, but hopefully this will be a useful starting point. Happy researching!!