Riding for Wheelchair Users and people with ‘balance’ problems.
There are many reasons why people may require the use of a wheelchair. Paralysis due to spinal injury (such as paraplegia), amputation of both legs, acute Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Cerebral Palsy and chronic arthritic conditions being just a few of the more common reasons.
Whatever the reason, ‘full time’ wheelchair users share the problem of being unable to walk. This means the necessary adaptations, though unique in each individual case, tend follow similar basic rules. Also people with disabilities affecting their balance (such as inner ear problems like Menieres Disease) may require certain of these adaptations.
This article is intended as a broad guide to these types of adaptation though I would recommend any wheelchair user to contact the NABD directly before proceeding with an adaptation, as the ‘fine tuning’ of individual needs can sometimes be quite involved.
In general for the majority of wheelchair users and people with balance problems, their lack of ‘stability’ makes a ‘third wheel’ a necessity. The most common way of achieving this is to opt for a motorcycle/sidecar outfit or a trike. In certain cases, it may be possible to use a solo motorcycle fitted with a ‘stabiliser’ system.
In the interest of keeping this article down to a reasonable length I will deal with the case of a wheelchair user with no use of their legs whatsoever, as this type of disability requires the largest amount of adaptation.
Firstly there are two main types of trike to consider. Motorcycle based trikes, and car based trikes. There is little to choose in the adaptability of either, as both can be made to suit the needs of wheelchair users.
Wherever possible I recommend that you have a trike built ‘from scratch’ rather than buying a second hand trike and having it adapted to suit. The cost of adapting an existing ‘standard’ trike can be as much as the cost of a full build, and with a full build you get a trike made to suit your own physical dimensions as well as your disability.
The first thing to consider when having the trike built is the height, positioning and style of the seat. It must be at the correct height to allow easy transfer from wheelchair to trike; this may be made even easier by utilising a sliding or swivelling seat. Also the style of seat must give the support and stability required, in many cases a fairly broad seat with some lower-back support is a necessity. A lap strap or chest harness can also help with rider stability.
Foot plates or running boards, fitted with some form of straps or ‘ski type’ clamps, should solve the problem of keeping your feet in place (though the strapping should be easy to use, such as Velcro). In some cases it may be necessary to fit further strapping or support brackets to stop your knees being flexed outward by the wind when riding, (this problem can also be minimised by fitting certain types of farings).
Obviously, all controls must be hand-operated. In the case of motorcycle based trikes this can be easily done by utilising the Kliktronic ‘push-button’ gear changer, and having front and rear brakes linked to a single lever. This is permissible on a trike as trikes have to have a separate ‘locking hand/parking brake’ system as on cars which also acts as a back-up if the main system fails.
For those riders who prefer to keep the front and rear brakes separate using a thumb brake for the front brakes and a more standard lever to operate the heavier rear brakes. Or a twin lever unit can be used to operate front and rear brakes respectively. There are thumb brakes and a twin lever available for this adaptation (see the kit page for details).
In the case of car based trikes the hand controls can be somewhat more complicated, but this can be much simplified if an automatic gearbox is used, or an electronic clutch operating system is fitted like those used supplied by Boom Trikes.
Reverse gear is of obvious importance for somebody unable to get off the machine and push it.
Car engine trikes will already have this facility, but for most motorcycle-based trikes it must be added. One way of achieving this is by the addition of an electric reversing motor driving a belt onto the prop shaft or a sprocket onto a chain drive. But for shaft drive machines there are various types of reverse unit available such as the Quaife Reversing Diff.
As there are many different styles of wheelchair, there are many different forms of wheelchair carrier that can be used. Some wheelchairs fold down for easy transportation and can be fitted into a rack that can then be swung out of the way. Others have detachable wheels and may require brackets either side of the rider to facilitate wheels on one side and chair carcass on the other. In any event this should be discussed in great detail with the manufacturer to avoid having to struggle.
Finally it must be said that there are a lot of cowboys in the trike building business and it can be difficult to find out who the good ones are. As a ‘rule of thumb’ you get what you pay for. If somebody tells you they will build you a trike for £3000.00 the chances are you will get a carrier bag full of nuts and bolts (or they will disappear with your money). Having said that I know of several people who have paid extortionate amounts of money and still ended up with nothing worth having. Before committing to a manufacturer, ask around. Speak to people who have already had trikes built by the company you are considering.
Single Vehicle Type Approval (SVA)
Trikes built specifically for disabled riders are exempt from the SVA test prior to registering the vehicle.
In some cases the adaptation to full hand controls may be all that is needed if the rider has no difficulty in transferring to the motorcycle seat and collapsing the wheelchair then stowing it in the sidecar. But more usually wheelchair users require sidecars, which they can enter in the wheelchair then transfer to the motorcycle seat, usually with the help of a mid-position pad and a grab rail or two.
Outfits of this nature can are usually either the purpose built Sharechair sidecar from Wasp Engineering in Salisbury or a high quality adapted sidecar from Unit Sidecars in Essex.
Both companies will also carry out the necessary hand control adaptions. (These are much the same as you would use on a bike-engine trike). Once again, back rests and lap straps may be necessary for some. Sidecar outfits are not, as many people seem to think, a cheaper alternative to trikes.
Both of these companies produce very high quality engineering and it does not come cheap. A good outfit can cost the same, or more than a good trike, the choice is in what you prefer to ride.