Author: Sam Brady, 27th May 2021

One of the key ideas of my research is to understand what drove improvements in sports wheelchairs. Why did athletes and manufacturers make certain design tweaks, introduce new materials, or alter the overall shape of the chair? Undoubtably, the main reason behind many of these changes was to improve individual athlete performance and push the sport forward. Athletes want to do everything in their power to better their results, and so the wheelchairs themselves should be no different in this regard. However, I want to add to this conversation by showcasing how technological advancements have changed different sports in different ways, rather than singularly focusing on the performance element.

A notable example of this can be seen in wheelchair racing. As I spoke about in a previous blog, the racing wheelchair developed quickly from a four-wheeled to a three-wheeled chair, and this rapid development mirrored the advancement of the sport. Racing was introduced to the Paralympic Games in 1964 in Tokyo, but the chairs were heavy and bulky, and not specialised for the sport. In fact, the racing event distance did not reach beyond 200m.[1] But, as racing became a more popular and competitive sport, new racing competitions and event categories appeared, leading athletes to modify existing technologies and create new devices to beat out their competition. Racing chairs became longer and sleeker to improve aerodynamic performance, increased wheel sizes helped acceleration, and altered seating position ensured better transfer of energy between the athlete’s arm and the wheels’ push rims. These changes, alongside the official Paralympic approval of the three-wheel design in 1988, helped athletes improve their performances by increasing the average speed of the sport’s elite racers. For example, in the Summer Olympic Wheelchair Demonstration Event, the fastest times for the Men’s 1500m improved by around 20 seconds per Olympic Games. Paul van Winkel finished with 03:58.5 in 1984, and 03:33.6 in 1988, which was then beaten by Claude Issorat’s time of 03:13.9 in 1992.[2] Whilst factors like pushing technique and other equipment certainly had an impact on performance, the rapid development of racing technology in this period undoubtably impacted racing results.

However, in other sports, developments in wheelchair technology have allowed athletes to change the sport by expanding the capabilities of athletes themselves. In wheelchair basketball, for instance, the introduction of strapping and better customised chairs afforded athletes more control over their movements. With these changes, athletes were able to tip their chairs to gain more height, and players could make sharper turns. Similarly, in tennis, changes in the positioning of the wheels made a huge difference to athlete performances. According to Australian Tennis player David Hall:

...Once those wheels went forward, and you ... couldn't tip back because of that back wheel. Oh my goodness! You're not driving a Ferrari anymore; you're driving like a jet rocket on wheels! Like that's, that's what it felt like, and that thing would turn like no other wheelchair has turned in history. And that changed the game hugely. Because all the tennis balls the guys couldn't track down before, now they were tracking down. And, you know, guys that had balance issues … paraplegics or quadriplegics or whoever, ... that helped with ... the balance issues as well. [3]

Improvements in tennis also facilitated new designs, as the shape of the tennis chair evolved over time. Like basketball, tennis was originally played in four-wheeled chairs, and athletes benefited from many of the improvements used in lightweight or active style chairs due to their lightness and improved functionality. In 1992, a three-wheeled tennis chair was introduced which allowed for a smaller turning circle and increased mobility.[4] Then, around the year 2000, Quickie’s Matchpoint chair became the norm for tennis, as its five-wheel design not only improved athletes’ safety, but featured better responsiveness and mobility via optimised cambering.[5] As such, improvements in specialised chairs helped to ensure athletes were able to compete to the full extent of their abilities without being limited by unsuitable wheelchairs. 

Peter Norfolk competing in wheelchair tennis at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics

Peter Norfolk, wheelchair tennis player, competing at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. Image ©WheelPower

Finally, the involvement of more players in these sports is, in part, due to technological advancements that enable increased participation. These new players help advance the sports even further by introducing new competition and pushing the athletes and sponsors to invest in even more superior technologies. Increasingly, sporting wheelchairs have moved away from major design innovations and are now more focused on reducing weight where possible, as well as ensuring they are properly fitted to their users. This allows not only for improved play, as users are not restricted by their chair not being suitable for their individual impairment, but also expands the scope of disabled people who are able to access these sports. Paralympian Lucy Shuker commented, for example, that the strapping on her tennis chair gives her core stability, and seemingly without this technological change, she would have not been able to access the sport at all.

... Basically, I’m paralysed from the chest down, so my arms work absolutely fine, but I have absolutely no core muscles, so no stability in terms of balance, so in terms of reaching for something... If I lean forward too far then I'll just flop. It's my arms that give me the balance. And you’ll actually see in my tennis chair, there [are] straps that basically give me that stability... they kind of act as my core that doesn’t work.”[6]

Furthermore, advancements in access to this technology also contributes towards the inclusion of new players in these sports. I previously wrote about accessibility and sporting wheelchairs, demonstrating Motivation’s low-cost sporting chairs developed for wheelchair users in low-income nations as a way to help them access the wheelchair-based sports. These products have been made possible due to rapid periods of technological development that took place in previous decades, which have now plateaued and led to a general stability in wheelchair technology, which in turn allows for cheaper chairs to be developed. Whilst it is important to stress that these are entry level chairs, and are not intended to be customised in the same way as something more elite like Lucy Shuker’s chairs, they offer additional pathways into these sports, encouraging new players become involved and leading to more competition across the globe.

Fundamentally, the developments of customisation and improved access develop the sports at both the elite and beginner level, improving the quality of adaptive sport across the board. Hopefully these examples have demonstrated how the development of sporting wheelchair technology has progressed adaptive sports, although this is certainly a surface level look into this aspect of technological development. Ultimately, this is also part of the impetus behind this research project, as it can be hard to understand the history of these sports without understanding the equipment used and the impact it had.

[1] ‘History’, British Wheelchair Racing Association,
[2] Brittain, From Stoke Mandeville to Stratford: A History of the Summer Paralympic Games, pp. 358-359.
[3] Interview with David Hall, conducted by the author, 04/03/2021.
[4] Bunting, More than Tennis: The first 25 Years of Wheelchair Tennis, p. 47.
[5] Interview with Peter Norfolk, conducted by the author, 14/12/2020.
[6] Meet the Paralympian – Q&A with Lucy Shuker, National Paralympic Heritage Trust, 19th March 2021. 24:55 - 25:22


  • Brittain, Ian, From Stoke Mandeville to Stratford: A History of the Summer Paralympic Games (Champaign, Illinois, Common Ground Publishing, 2012)
  • Bunting, Sarah, More than Tennis: The first 25 Years of Wheelchair Tennis (Houten, Premium Press, 2001)
  • ‘History’, British Wheelchair Racing Association,
  • Interview with David Hall, conducted by the author, 04/03/2021.
  • Interview with Peter Norfolk, conducted by the author, 14/12/2020.
  • Meet the Paralympian event – Q&A with Lucy Shuker, National Paralympic Heritage Trust, 19th March 2021.