Author: Sam Brady, 15th January 2021

It’s all well and good saying that my project is about sports wheelchair history, but what exactly is a sports wheelchair?

Or, to put it more accurately: For the purposes of my research, how am I defining what a sports wheelchair is, and what types of wheelchairs make the cut? However, this question may sound silly, as the definition of a sports wheelchair is pretty self-explanatory – a wheelchair that you play sport in. However, the history of adaptive sport and the variety of adaptive sport equipment blurs these lines slightly, making the question worth considering – particularly as it shapes who I will interview for the research, and what technological innovations I consider to be important.

Given the variety of user needs and possible use cases, the definition of an everyday wheelchair is flexible. The Americans with Disability Act defines a wheelchair as:

A wheelchair is a manually operated or power-driven device designed primarily for use by an individual with a mobility disability for the main purpose of indoor, or of both indoor and outdoor, locomotion. Individuals with mobility disabilities must be permitted to use wheelchairs and manually powered mobility aids, i.e., walkers, crutches, canes, braces, or other similar devices designed for use by individuals with mobility disabilities, in any areas open to pedestrian traffic. [1] 

Of course, this definition says nothing about other factors that may define a wheelchair, such as shape, dimensions, materials, or even the number of wheels. But, by focusing the definition on the wheelchair user and their need for mobility, the line between a wheelchair and a wheeled chair (e.g. an office chair) is better established. Yet, this may not be enough to delineate a sports wheelchair from other types of wheelchairs.

Notably, wheelchair-based sports were established through the utilisation of medical wheelchairs as sporting equipment. At rehabilitation centres like Stoke Mandeville, adaptive sports developed as disabled people used the rehabilitative technologies at their disposal. Often unsuited to sport, these chairs were heavy and unresponsive, featured unnecessary functions like folding frames, and were simply not intended for independent use, which can be seen by the smaller rear wheels that hindered self-propulsion. However, as these were the only types of wheelchairs on the market, and wheelchair companies saw no reason to alter the design, it became the role of some users to adapt and change their wheelchair into a piece of sporting technology.

Due to user- led technological development, the lines between an ‘everyday’ wheelchair and a ‘sports’ wheelchair became blurred. In some circumstances, everyday chairs were used for sports. Some of my interviewees have spoken about using the same chair for basketball and the everyday up until the 1980s, for instance, after which dedicated basketball chairs started to hit the market. Whether that would define these chairs as sports chairs is arguable, however. If an everyday chair was modified in certain ways to make it more suitable for sports – such as removing armrests or brakes – that may then define it as a sports chair. On the other hand, elements of sporting wheelchair technology that proved advantageous to users, such as rigid box frames or cambered wheels, became part of everyday chair technology, as users who had modified everyday chairs and manufactured sports chairs entered the everyday chair market with ‘sporty designs’. This can be seen in the products from a number of brands worldwide, such as Quickie, RGK, Top End, Küschall, Melrose and Panthera, to name a few. Therefore, it could be suggested that, technologically, there is little distinguishing a sporting chair from an everyday chair due to this technological overlap. 

Perhaps sports wheelchairs are better defined by their intended uses, as this also accounts for their technological variations. Wheelchair basketball, for example, requires quick and tight movements to help players travel around the court and outmanoeuvre the opposing team. Therefore, the chairs were designed to be lighter, using box frames and different materials to improve speed and responsiveness instance. Moreover, rugby chairs drew on the advancements of the basketball chair but required further adaptions around durability to suit that sport. Contrastingly, racing wheelchairs undertook a different evolution, extending the size of the wheelbase and increasing front wheel size to maximize acceleration. Whilst the basketball chair and its technical descendants largely retain the same shape as the medical wheelchairs from which they developed, racing wheelchairs significantly changed their form, eventually moving to the three-wheeled shape after approval at the 1988 Seoul Paralympics. This change in shape was introduced to improve aerodynamic performance, allowing athletes to improve their times as the result of improved technology. By focusing on this intended usage, the technology evolved accordingly, and these chairs can confidently be labelled as sports wheelchairs.

However, there still exist certain outlying cases which have been a points of consideration for this research, largely because this line between everyday and sport wheelchairs has become so blurred.

In the case of Para Dance Sport, for instance, users can use any type of wheelchair, especially at the entry level. However, many higher-level dancers use sports chairs or specialised dance chairs, which are produced by companies like RMA or RGK.[2] At first glance, these chairs may seem similar to an everyday chair, due to the reduced camber and footplate, for instance. Yet, this is considered to be a sporting wheelchair for the purposes of this research, as these design choices are employed to suit the nature of the intended sport – defining them as sports chairs not by their technological design, but the intention behind this. Furthermore, powersport chairs – such as the motorised wheelchairs used in powerchair football – are another recent inclusion in the research. Up until this point, the research had focused on manual wheelchairs, so it initially felt like the powerchairs did not necessarily belong in the research – the core difference of the motor somehow differentiating these wheelchairs despite their intended use. However, the similarities in the user-driven technological developments between both electric sport chairs and their non-motorised counterparts makes powersport chairs a suitable point of comparison nonetheless. 

Ultimately, this may return us to the original definition of a sports wheelchair – a wheelchair that is used for sport. While this definition may miss some of the nuances that differentiate a sports wheelchair from an everyday chair or ignore certain circumstances when sports can be played in everyday chairs, it may still be suitable. The key point of delineation lies in the sport-specific adaptions found in these chairs, and the intended use of the technology.

[1] The ADA National Network - ‘What is the definition of a wheelchair under the ADA?’,
[2] RMA Sport Dance Wheelchair, / RGK Danza,


  • Dance Wheelchair, RMA Sport,
  • RGK Danza, RGK,
  • ‘What is the definition of a wheelchair under the ADA?’, The ADA National Network,