Author: Sam Brady, 24th August 2020

As my research aims to explore the history of the sports wheelchair, I think it would be useful to provide some context around the everyday wheelchair’s history, so the historical significance of the sports wheelchair can be better appreciated. Obviously, the sports wheelchair is a variation of everyday wheelchairs (i.e. wheelchairs not intended to be used during the everyday and not for specialist activities like sport), which have experienced their own technological evolution. This piece is not a comprehensive overview of the topic, however, and the referenced works provide extra depth and information that couldn’t be included here.

Traces of what we would consider a wheelchair can be found as early as sixth-century China and Greece, and examples of wheeled chairs can be seen throughout various times and cultures.[1] Generally, it was the affluent disabled person who was able to benefit from these technologies, such as the wheelchair used by King Phillip of Spain in the sixteenth century and the Bath Chairs used at spas that later became a fashionable item in Victorian England.[2] Evidence of the first self-propelled wheelchair can be found in seventeenth-century Germany, created by disabled watchmaker Stephan Farffler, and this device is also seen as the precursor to the tricycle and bicycle.[3]

Engraving of Stephan Farffler in his self-propelled wheelchair c1730

Engraving of Farffler sitting in his self-propelling invention, c1730. Image©

Nevertheless, the mid-twentieth century is when the wheelchair as we know it came into existence. The technologically advanced combat of World War II led to huge numbers of injured soldiers, many of whom would not have survived if not for the introduction of new medicines like antibiotics. This, however, led to a higher number of veterans left with an impairment. Simultaneously, rehabilitative treatments like those at the Spinal Cord Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville helped to improve the morality rate of paraplegic and tetraplegic patients, and employment schemes set up by the British government aimed to encourage disabled people’s participation in mainstream society.[4] These factors led to an increase in demand for assistive technologies. This was amplified by the polio epidemics of the 1940s and 1950s, the long-term effects of Thalidomide and a new generation of injured veterans from the Vietnam War.[5]  This resulted in an increased interest in the wheelchair, and ultimately, a desire to further refine the technology.

Over time, the wheelchair became further linked to the medical field, reinforcing the association between the disabled body and sickness or ill health. This is reflected in the design of many wheelchairs in this time period, although it should be noted that these attitudes were most likely not a conscious design choice, but a result of pervasive, stifling attitudes towards those with physical impairments. For instance, there was an assumption by the able-bodied designers of wheelchairs in the 1950s that disabled people would not be going outside or would want to go anywhere by themselves. As such, wheelchairs were designed for indoor use, with large propelling at the front and smaller caster wheels at the back. However, this meant these wheelchairs were unfit for outdoor use, especially in the era before improvements in making public spaces accessible, as caster wheels at the back of the chair did not allow the user to tip backwards to go up steps or curbs.[6] This can also be implied by the design of hospital wheelchairs, as rear-facing push handles and small caster wheels did not allow for the user to propel the wheelchair themselves, imbedding the idea of dependence into the technology’s form and function.

This is not to say that disabled people did not challenge negative attitudes surrounding their medicalisation, but that medical and rehabilitative professionals held power that superseded the experiences and desires of users, leaving their voices unheard.[7] This medical attitude was so prevalent that little to no advice was given to polio survivors about how to adapt their homes and life to use technologies like wheelchairs, as life beyond the hospital was not considered.[8] Impairment was merely a medical issue to solve. 

As such, wheelchairs remained in the medicinal, not consumer field – as Williamson remarks, wheelchairs would be advertised as industrial products or in medical catalogues.[9] Only Everest and Jennings appealed directly to disabled consumers via disabled community publications in the 1950s United States, advertising their foldable x-frame wheelchair which afforded the user more opportunities than other wheelchairs (as the chair could be easily placed in a car, allowing for improved independence or chances for socialising with friends/family).[10] At the same time, wheelchair sports were gaining popularity. At hospitals like Stoke Mandeville, patients played sport in heavy, albeit comfortable armchair like ‘Travaux’ wheelchairs (as can be seen below), occasionally with slower propulsion methods like levers and hand cranks.[11]

Stoke Mandeville hospital patients playing wheelchair basketball in the 1950s

Photo of Wheelchair Basketball, c1950. Image ©Wheelpower 

Those who wanted to improve their sporting capability needed specialised wheelchairs which could better perform this task, generally desiring lighter and more manoeuvrable wheelchairs. However, economic factors slowed the development of new wheelchairs and mainstream brands like Everest and Jennings actively refused to make changes users requested, so users had to take matters into their own hands.[12] Athletes modified their wheelchairs by removing non-essential parts, such as arm rests or breaks, which not only made the wheelchair lighter, but also signified an ideological rejection of the medicinal design of the chair which prioritised safety over independence and comfort.[13] Overall, the drive for modification for sporting purposes inspired similar changes in everyday models, with specific desire for the lightweight function and manoeuvrability of sporting wheelchairs to be applied to the everyday wheelchair. As Stewart and Watson write, this is widely acknowledged as the starting place for ultra-lightweight wheelchair models beginning in the 1970s, continuing with the Quickie wheelchair, and continuing to this day.[14]

As such, the history of the everyday wheelchair owes much to the development of wheelchair sports and specific sporting wheelchairs. This should not imply, however, that the sports wheelchair is merely a footnote in the page of wider wheelchair history, as it’s facilitation of disability sport implies much about its socio-political power and value. This highlights the value of the project in understanding the importance of the sports wheelchair from this technical and social perspective. Nevertheless, the wheelchair has a long, multifaceted developmental history which can be better contextualised by a deeper understanding of the history of the sports wheelchair, which itself cannot be properly appreciated without understanding the medical history underpinning the everyday wheelchair. Importantly, this piece obviously did not cover other types of wheelchairs, such as electric wheelchairs (more so due to my lack of knowledge than anything else – although Roulstone’s book on disability and technology is an interesting place to start on this topic). As a piece of technology, the wheelchair enjoys a rich history, that should continue to be investigated.

[1] Disability and Technology, Alan Roulstone, p185
[2] History of the Wheelchair, Kay Nias
[3] History of the Wheelchair, Kay Nias
[4] `Turned into Taxpayers', Julie Anderson, pp 469-470
[5] A Sociotechnical History of the Ultralightweight Wheelchair, Stewart and Watson, p8
[6] In Pursuit of Standardization, Woods and Watson, pp 557-558
[7] A Sociotechnical History of the Ultralightweight Wheelchair, Stewart and Watson, p7; Accessible America, Bess Williamson, p78
[8] Accessible America, Bess Williamson, p80
[9] Accessible America, Bess Williamson, p81
[10] Accessible America, Bess Williamson, p82
[11] Sports Wheelchairs in the 1980s, Mandeville Legacy
[12] A Sociotechnical History of the Ultralightweight Wheelchair, Stewart and Watson, p7 + p12
[13] A Sociotechnical History of the Ultralightweight Wheelchair, Stewart and Watson, p12
[14] A Sociotechnical History of the Ultralightweight Wheelchair, Stewart and Watson­­, p9 + p15


  • Julie Anderson, `Turned into Taxpayers': Paraplegia, Rehabilitation and Sport at Stoke Mandeville, 1944-56 (Journal of Contemporary History, 2003, Volume 38, No.3)
  • Kay Nias, History of the Wheelchair (Science Museum blog, March 2019) -
  • Mandeville Legacy, Sports wheelchairs in the 1980s (May 2011) -
  • Alan Roulstone, Disability and Technology, An interdisciplinary and International Approach (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2016)
  • Hilary Stewart and Nick Watson, A Sociotechnical History of the Ultralightweight Wheelchair: A Vehicle of Social Change (Science, Technology & Human Values, 2019, Volume 45, No.6)
  • Bess Williamson, Accessible America, A history of Disability and Design (New York University Press, New York, 2019)
  • Brian Woods and Nick Watson, In Pursuit of Standardization: The British Ministry of Health's Model 8F Wheelchair, 1948-1962 (Technology and Culture, 2004, Volume 45, No.3)