Wheelchair repair?

Hi all! Does anybody know anything about wheelchair repair? Like, what are the typical failures, where you can buy parts, what kinds of skills are required? I heard a piece on the radio today about how disabled people are having to wait weeks for repairs to their Medicaid-supplied wheelchairs, and I was thinking about ways to speed that up. The issue affects MILLIONS of people, they say.

The most common failure points are the brakes, tires, seats, and backs. When I did it I ordered parts from ALCO Sales & Service in the Chicago area.

I built an electric wheelchair from the ground up as a science project back in high school; my motivation was reading an article about how expensive they were. It was basically a combination of bicycle and R/C work. Not hard at all. I did really well, making it all the way to International competition. Along the way I learned what the real problem is: it’s not the technical complexity or anything like that, it’s liability and insurance.

I couldn’t say what parts failed since I never ran mine long enough for it to come apart. I made must of my own parts but I did buy wheels and brake components from a local medical supply store. They must have been in the business of doing some kind of service or repair because the wheels I purchased were used–I couldn’t afford a new set.

What Steve wrote makes perfect sense–those are the part of the chair which are getting constant wear. Replacing them is simple, though I’m sure there are all sorts of legal obstacles.

@Steve, thanks that helps.

Let’s see, the seats and backs just are soft materials like vinyl, so they tear or delaminate?

I don’t know how the brakes work, and I’m not seeing any parts. There’s that kind of lever lock that locks the tire. Is that it?



So actually, I used to be a lawyer back in the day. What kind of liabilty and insurance issues are the problem? Would manufacturers get sued if somebody got hurt in their product? Is the liability insurance too expensive to carry? Etc.


The brakes that I saw are very simple, it is the lever lock against the tire. A very simple 4-bar linkage. I can’t imagine it takes more than 5 minutes to replace one. I would assume the seats either stretch out over time, wear through, or get torn. They should only take a few moments to replace as well.

I know very little about law, but I was told that both of those issues were a concern: liability insurance being expensive and manufacturers worried about getting sued if someone got hurt. Also, I don’t know if this would apply to working on wheelchairs or not, but I understand that anyone who needs to access or work with medical records electronically needs to be in “HIPA compliance” --this has to do with the security of computers for accessing medical records–and apparently that is a major cost.

It’s funny, you can take a common everyday object but the moment it gets associated with “safety”, “medical”, “marine”, or “aviation” its price suddenly grows dramatically.

yeah if you mean manual wheel chairs I would think of them like bike repair as many still have spoke wheels too and are setup like bikes. chassis today are either AL or AL/TI in alot of cases but I suspect some steel still around. the 3 guys I work with in chairs - theirs are all AL with pretty welds. Wheels removeal and replacement - bearing replacement in the nice ones. and tire replaicements for the mains.

seats foam replacement, covers, total replacement, and the borads under - which tend to be fibreglass today too. most have a rubber block brake lever device but some have calipers again like a bike.

motorzied ones - add on motor, battery, gearbox repair and lube needs. (grease fittings) I suspect the bigger issue is parts availability as most areas have shops. but you know I’m afraid like many other things medical it’s going to stay a growth industry.


Thanks for that. I’d forgotten about HIPPA. Sheesh.

My understanding is these chairs often break down because maintenance is not covered by Medicaid. So I’m imagining some kind of low-cost or no-cost wheelchair checkup location, similar to a bike repair shop. No new products, no medical records, nothing like that. Or encouraging bike shops to offer that service. Or developing referral networks for machine shops or welding shops for repairs where parts won’t do it.

Any reactions or problems you can see?

I don’t see any technical issues with that at all. Maybe some of the fancier electronic wheelchairs need a bit more expertise (I wouldn’t know), but I’d think any bike shop ought to handle the things that Napalm mentioned no problem. Swapping bearings, lubing things up, replacing tires, wheels, seats, etc, they ought to be able to do that easily and I doubt any special tools would be required either.
I bet it could be done with a mobile unit too. Someone with a small truck or van stocked with common parts could easily visit people directly or perhaps set up like a “food truck” in some public area or perhaps near a clinic? That might help people who couldn’t get to a bike shop.

Only issue I can think of is liability, perhaps? Though like I said I’m no lawyer so perhaps there’s a way around that?

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Thanks, that’s helpful.

So I’ll just line up the tasks you mention by technical skill and resources:

There’s replacing wear items like tires, seats, brake pads if they have them. Probably just need hand tools.

Then replacing or repairing things like bearings or wheels, which might need special presses or other equipment. A bike shop could probably handle it? Maybe that includes motor stuff.

Then then repairing broken frames? That’s maybe aluminum welding, which I guess needs specialized skills and equipment, way outside my knowledge. What kind of shops can do that? Fabricators, body shops, welding shops?

And what about maintenance? That seems to be the winner re bang for the buck, right?


A travelling van is a brilliant idea. It could do simple things, and if there’s something it can’t handle, it can take chairs to a shop that can.

Liability? Well, they can always sign a waiver of their right to sue. We could also work up a kind of checklist or flow chart to make sure procedures are well-crafted, and even maybe get pre-approval from engineers, manufacturers, advocates, etc. That would create more trust, which is key to avoiding lawsuits. :wink:

And it would be so cool if we could have disabled people doing some of the work!

Thanks again, sir!


And I forgot to ask, how available were parts? Where they kept stocked, and did they arrive quickly?

I used to work on both folding and non-folding chairs. Most of the folding ones had sort of a sling seat of heavy padded vinyl or leather (but not all), the non-folding ones had more padding on a sturdy support covered with vinyl or leather. They all would scuff, tear, and generally wear out with time. Most of the wheels I saw were cast wheels, not spoked like a bicycle.
We never had supply problems with that company, helpful on the phone too.

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Thanks, that’s really helpful. So you actually worked on wheelchairs yourself! did you see any problems caused by lack of maintenance specifically?

Most “lack of maintenance” that I saw was just people not noticing that bolts/fasteners on armrests or footrests were loose. Generally wheelchairs are extremely sturdy and need minimal maintenance.

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Gotcha, thanks again. So this radio piece I heard said lots of problems were caused by lack of maintenance. What do you think they were tallking about?

Here’s the piece, if anybody’s curious.

I listened to the report and it sounded like it focused on electric motorized chairs. The example of the front wheel falling off sounds like an example of a loose bolt that fell off/out or broke. The flat tire instance surprises me because I can’t imagine any chair not having solid or semi-solid tires. The report is only half the facts I think, the rest of the story would talk about ordinary wheelchairs and that sometimes abuse is a factor.


Dude, thanks for taking the time to listen to it! I really appreciate it! You hear these news items but it can be really hard to get a fuller picture.

Yeah, that flat tire thing seems a little weird.

So it leaves out ordinary wheelchairs, and the typical kinds of repairs like upholstery, wheels, bearings, that kind of thing. Good to know.

Thanks again, brother!

I do think that van idea might be good for the people maybe not on VA. I mean if you already have issues getting around and your hardware is out of commision someone coming to you is a good idea.

However I think things are more disposable now - as the guys I work with that have them seem to get new ones every 3-4 years

aldo the electric stuff I think is mostly plug and play. It’s XXX battery type, it’s z and Y motors that you end up getting from the company I would imagine. Not sure but nothing on them looks that complicated to me.

I am not up to speed on how modern electric wheelchairs work but I’d imagine it’s just a matter of swapping parts like Napalm suggests. Bad battery? Replace with a new one. Bad motor or drive unit? Replace with a new one. Bad wheel? New one. Basic service would be like basic bike service: lube anything that needs lubing, tighten loose fasteners & perhaps use loctite or safety wire to prevent future issues with things coming loose, It’s just a matter of having the parts on hand. I really don’t think much is needed in the way of tools either.

A mobile van or truck could not only visit people directly at their homes but could also set up in more public areas or perhaps better yet could set up near a clinic or hospital where there might be many wheelchair users. Offer a basic “tune up” and inspection service to help prevent future problems.