Author: Sam Brady, 9th December 2020

This year, November 18th to December 18th marks Disability History Month, in which the organisation of the same name aims to increase awareness of disability history and the ongoing struggle for disabled rights. This year’s theme is, ‘Access – How far have we come and how far have we to go?’ I wanted to use this month’s blogpost to consider this idea in respect to my research around sporting wheelchairs, as while my project and the aims of this year’s Disability History Month theme diverge slightly, I thought this was an interesting idea to consider in the past and present of sporting wheelchairs.

To me, the idea of access can be broken down into two topics: access granted to disabled people by sports wheelchairs; and disabled people’s access to sporting wheelchairs.

Starting with the concept of access granted by sporting wheelchairs, the need to adapt existing wheelchairs to improve their performance for sport implies the short comings of wheelchair technology in the 1950s and 1960s. Wheelchairs provided by rehabilitation centres or the NHS were heavy and bulky, and drew on a medicalised framework of disability, thus limiting use, as the assumption was that the user would be housebound or institutionalised.[1] As wheelchair manufacturers and health professionals saw no reason to change the design, users took matters in their own hands and slowly began to experiment with new frames and materials, or the removal of unneeded features – some of which I documented in last month’s post. Many of these changes were implemented so users could push the sport forward and improve their own performance. However, these changes began to bleed into the design of everyday wheelchairs, beginning with developments made by wheelchair athletes, such as Quadra wheelchair, built by Jeff Minnebraker in the early 1970s, and the Quickie wheelchair, by Marylin Hamilton, Don Helman and Jim Okamoto in the early 1980s.[2] This new generation of ultra-lightweight wheelchairs was built on a foundation of sports wheelchair design. Many of the principles sought after in sports wheelchairs – manoeuvrability, weight reduction, responsiveness, durability – were also vital for everyday use. Importantly, this also improved wheelchair users’ access to the world around them. Lighter and quicker chairs allowed users more control over their movement and therefore increased access opportunities as compared to old medicalised wheelchair design.

Of course, this was – and still is – heavily dependent on the architecture of the world surrounding us, and further improvements to the physical environment are needed. Yet, the importance of also designing proper equipment is vital in making spaces accessible to wheelchair users. In fact, the many varieties of sporting wheelchairs available today have increased users’ access to sporting opportunities that would otherwise be closed. There are many commonalities between sports wheelchair variations – for example, wheelchair basketball and tennis can be played in similar chairs, although elite level play requires specialised and customised chairs for improved performance. In theory, however, you could use a multi-sport chair for both activities. However, this does not work for all sports, as differences between terrain limit what technology can be used. This is the case in winter sports such as skiing, and access to these sports is predicated on specialised chairs. As such, the sit ski was created in the 1960s, but they were heavy and were only able to be used on certain types of slopes.[3] As the design improved, however, the access and independence these chairs provided improved significantly. One such example of this type of ski chair is the Shadow Mono-Ski, developed in 1985 by American athlete and business owner Jim Martinson.

Image of the Shadow Mono-Ski sports wheelchair part of the Science Museums collection

Figure 1 - The Shadow Mono-Ski. Image shared with the permission of the Science Museum. Science Museum Group. Shadow Mono-ski sports wheelchair, England, 1993-1995. Accessed 1 December 2020.

The Shadow Mono Ski was not only the first mono ski to use a mono shock suspension, but it also allows the user to get on and off the chair lift independently, greatly improving disabled people’s independence and access to skiing.[4] Whilst Martinson’s mono ski was not the first ski for wheelchair users on the market, continual iteration on the design and capabilities of the chair helped to broaden what sports disabled people could access.

The other topic here, however – disabled people’s access to sports wheelchairs – is where more work may be needed.

As products with a limited user base and production requiring specialist knowledge, wheelchairs are expensive pieces of equipment, and this cost increases as higher performance and user-customised chairs are needed for the elite levels of the sport, such as in the Paralympics. This often means that access to good quality sporting wheelchairs is hampered by economic cost. Whilst this is not uncommon or unexpected for high-level sports technology, this is still a barrier to access that is worth considering, especially given exacerbated economic hardships disabled people often face.[5] This issue is also geographic in nature, as the divide between the developed and developing world intensifies prohibitive costs and impacts people’s access to sport and specialist sporting equipment.

There is some precedent for these issues being part of the nature of these sports. For instance, much of the development of racing chairs in the 1980s took place in America and mainland Europe. As such, British wheelchair racers often had to import wheelchairs from other countries to remain competitive, despite the efforts of British companies like Bromakin and Chevron. However, various conversations with athletes and other individuals over the course of my research so far have implied that there was more acceptance to use everyday chairs for sport – e.g. during road races – than there is today. Further, pathways into sport via medical institutions, such as using sport as part of rehabilitation, are suggested to be declining, thus potentially limiting disabled people’s access to sport opportunities they might not be aware of. Therefore, economic access to both the technology and the sport itself may have decreased in modern times.

Nevertheless, some positive steps are being taken, specifically to create entry level wheelchairs and improve access to sporting wheelchairs in the developing world. The charity Motivation, for example, aims to enable independence and opportunity for disabled people in developing countries, and have created a number of more affordable wheelchairs, including a multi-sport wheelchair and the Flying Start racing wheelchair.[6] These wheelchairs are designed to give users the benefits of specialist sporting wheelchairs, but at an accessible price bracket. This is especially advantageous to people starting in sport, allowing them to access sport without the high-cost barrier. Further, they are durable and low maintenance, meaning they are more practical long-term for individuals in developing countries.

Image of the Multisport wheelchair from Motivation

Figure 2 - Motivation's Multisport wheelchair. Shared with permission of Motivation.  Accessed 1 December 2020.
Image of the Flying Start racing wheelchair from Motivation

Figure 3 - Motivation's Flying Start racing wheelchair. Shared with permission of Motivation. Accessed 1 December 2020.

Additionally, changes to the International Paralympic rules have led to restrictions around non-commercially available equipment, aiming to ensure fairness between nations. In the IPC’s Policy on Sports Equipment, section 3.1.3 states:

The cost and large-scale availability of (principal components of) equipment should be considered to guarantee access to a sufficiently large number of athletes in the sport.[7]

This policy does not immediately solve the divides in technological access between various nations, of course, but begins consideration of these factors which may privilege certain athletes and countries. These developments, therefore, work towards improving access to sport at both the elite level and entry level and ensure fairness between geographical areas.

Access as it relates to sports wheelchairs is therefore a complex picture: in many respects, sports wheelchairs have improved access by advancing wheelchair technology and providing more opportunities for disabled people. On the other hand, prohibitive costs and geo-economic differences still make sporting wheelchairs inaccessible to many. Vitally, important work continues to be done to improve access to equipment and to make the sport accessible to many more people going forward. Disability History Month provides the opportunity to reflect on the development of disabled people’s sport and equipment, and to consider how far access has come, and what can be achieved next. 

United Kingdom Disability History Month

[1] Stewart and Watson, ‘A Sociotechnical History of the Ultralightweight Wheelchair: A Vehicle of Social Change’, Science, Technology, & Human Values, 44.6 (2019), p. 6.
[2] Vogel, ‘Quadra and the Lightweight Wheelchair Revolution’, New Mobility, 2012. / Shapiro, ‘Re-inventing the Wheel’, The Alicia Patterson Foundation, 2011.
[3] Passionate People Invacare, ‘Sit ski, mono ski and more: accessible skiing for disabled people’. 2016.
[4] Move United, ‘Adaptive Sports Awards: Jim Martinson’.
[5] Scope, ‘Disability facts and figures’.
[6] Motivation, ‘Why we exist’.
[7] International Paralympic Committee, ‘IPC Policy on Sport Equipment’, 2011.


  • ‘Adaptive Sports Awards: Jim Martinson’, Move United.
  • ‘Disability facts and figures’, Scope.
  •  ‘IPC Policy on Sport Equipment’ International Paralympic Committee, 2011.
  • Shapiro, Joseph, ‘Re-inventing the Wheel’, The Alicia Patterson Foundation, 2011.
  • Stewart, Hilary, and Nick Watson, ‘A Sociotechnical History of the Ultralightweight Wheelchair: A Vehicle of Social Change’, Science, Technology, & Human Values, 44.6 (2019)
  • ‘Sit ski, mono ski and more: accessible skiing for disabled people’, Passionate People Invacare, 2016.
  • Vogel, Bob, ‘Quadra and the Lightweight Wheelchair Revolution’, New Mobility, 2012.
  •  ‘Why we exist’, Motivation.