Wheelchair levers! What on earth are they you might be thinking. Thought this website was supposed to be to do with cycling. Yes indeed. But an important underlying theme is to do with enabling the less abled to get out and about and into the countryside. It is also to do with the pleasures of being active.

For many people who become disabled a first experience of getting out and about comes through using a wheelchair. Wheelchairs do have their advantages. If you are young, have good upper body strength and are of the male sex a good wheelchair can soon become a passport to regaining an active life.

However propelling a wheelchair by pushing on the handrims is pretty hard work. This is especially so if you are female, of lighter build and getting older. The necessary strength and stamina may be lacking. As readers of the ‘on three wheels’ blogs on this web site will know one way of overcoming this problem is through attaching a hand-cycle ‘front end’ to the wheelchair. Cranking is a good deal easier and generally less strenuous than pushing the hand rims.

Recently we have come across another way of improving on hand rim pushing. This is where wheelchair levers come in. They and their use were introduced to us by a friend who also has MS, is another Kath so is obviously female, and like me, not in the first flush of youth. She reports very enthusiastically on her experience of using these, and says that the little electric scooter she used to use now resides most of the time in the garage! Like me she prefers the experience of being active and in charge.

Before I say more about the other Kath’s experience with ‘add on’ wheelchair levers I would like to make a little diversion. The lever principle for wheelchair propulsion was not totally new to me but previously I had come across them as an ‘integrated package’ so to speak. This was as an essential constituent of the fantastic and amazing ‘Mountain Trike’ which has been mentioned, though not fully reviewed, within this website (above right).

The mountain trike comes with levers built in and with a good suspension system. It is ideal for self propelling over rough, as well as smooth ground. It is, however quite expensive and perhaps a bit on the large and heavy side. It was designed by a young engineering student, Tim Morgan who took his design into successful production.

Another young group of engineering students, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have designed a chair using lever propulsion. The difference is that this chair ‘The Freedom Chair’ was originally designed for use in developing countries and was therefore built as cheaply as possible without fancy suspension and using widely available bicycle components. (See right) The team are currently working on a number of initiatives but at the time of writing the machine is only available from the US at the moment. This is an excellent resource for people with disabilities in those countries who have a tougher time than people in western countries. (I hasten to add that in these times of austerity and neoliberism there are very many people with disabilities in this country who certainly do not have it easy either!)

But back to the main theme! My namesake, who lives in Aberystwyth has discovered that wheelchair levers are available in this country as an ‘add on’ to a standard wheelchair. She is very pleased with the way they work and for her improved ability to progress further and faster with her wheelchair and the increases in her strength and fitness.

These levers are not, as I had originally thought, an American product. Quite amazingly they were originally invented and developed by a young British lad of eighteen! He had become friends with some young people of his own age who had mobility problems. This led to his initial development of some wheelchair levers as part of a Design Technology A level which was quite an achmievement. He won an Audi Young Designer of the Year Award and did take his design into production. In 2008 he got the Independent Living Design Award for the levers, which at this point had an RRP of £349.

However, more research and development work and considerable financial input was required to further improve the design. The Nudrive Air Lever system is now manufactured in Denmark, and is unfortunately, but probably inevitably rather more expensive. The agent in this country is now Stanley Handling Ltd based in Luton. Kath reports that she was pretty shocked to find the price (around £2,000) but after thinking about it for a few weeks she and her husband decided to go ahead and acquire a pair of Nudrive wheelchair leavers.

A salesman came out from Luton to Aberystwyth bringing a pair of levers. Kath reports that they had a good demonstration of the processes involved in fitting, and then using the levers. They went out with the salesman for a proper trial and test on the promenade in Aberystwyth, and, as a result, decided to go ahead and order a pair. These were delivered within a couple of weeks.

Since acquisition Kath, with her husband, have had a chance to try things out properly. They are very pleased. Kath reports that because of the compactness of the wheelchair, even with the levers fitted, it is easy to use around town, and gets through shop doorways without any problem. She also reports that it works well on the local buses. Using the wheelchair with levers on the local Prom is great. It is easier to go faster and keep up with companions, and keep going for longer.

Turning, manoeuvring and braking were easily mastered. There are good online demonstrations of these procedures to reinforce initial instruction.

In comparison with a hand-cycle the Nudrive system has the advantage of being more compact. It is probably more manoeuvrable in the town context and on buses and trains, and would fit more easily into a car. The disadvantage is that since the wheelchair castors are not raised up it doesn't do a great deal to improve progress over rough or uneven ground.

freewheel wheelchair add on.png

However there is another (cheaper) piece of equipment that fulfils this purpose and has been reviewed very positively. It could well work in conjunction with the Nudrive system but hasn’t been tested out. This is the Freewheel All Terrain Attachment, a widely available American import which effectively provides a third front wheel for the wheelchair — so a bit comparable to the hancycle. Experience and review anybody?

(Our thanks to Kath Philips for extending our knowledge of wheelchair levers and telling us about her experience of them.)

Some Technical Stuff

Suitability – Designed to work with any manual wheelchair with 22, 24 and 25 inch spoked wheels.

Fitting – Each of the three ‘legs’ of the unit mounts to the wheel with a spring loaded clip.

Forward propulsion – The user pushes the two levers forward parallel to the direction of motion. The main power in the stroke should be in the last part of the push to avoid the castors lifting off the ground. Pushing less on one side will turn the chair towards the side of the lesser push. Greater speed can be obtained by holding the levers lower down which gives a shorter but more demanding push.

Climbing slopes – The same procedure for forward propulsion is applied but the user should lean forward to prevent the castors lifting off the ground. The ratchet will prevent the chair rolling backwards, but the forward stroke needs to create sufficient momentum to allow time for the levers to be pulled back for the next stroke. Maximum power can be achieved by holding the levers at their ends.

Mounting curbs – At the curb the user needs to lean back slightly and put enough power into the early stroke to lift the castors. The middle of the stroke will bring the back wheels to the curb where the user leans forward and gives a good push for the rest of the stroke. This should lift the back wheel over the curb as well as landing the castors.

Braking – To slow the chair’s forward motion by activating the brake the user should pull the levers towards the middle of the chair. This can be done with the levers at any point in the stroke. This movement is at right angles to the normal movement of the levers.

Reversing – It is possible to use the levers to reverse the chair. This is achieved by moving the levers away from the chair at right angles to the normal motion to disconnect the forward drive. Once in ‘neutral, the user effectively applies the braking movement to ‘lock’ the lever on the wheel. Bckward movement is then achieved by pulling the levers up, the opposite to forward motion.