I like my car. I love road trips, and my life as a wheelchair user would be a whole lot less convenient if I wasn’t able to drive. But I also live in a city, Portland, Oregon, where the car is quickly falling down the pecking order of convenient modes of transport.
There are countless occasions in my everyday life where it would be much simpler, and more enjoyable, to not have to get in my car. Parking is a pain in any neighborhood I might actually want to visit, narrow streets make for stressful driving, and sunny days are for soaking up some vitamin D.
I have relatively strong arms for a C7 quad, but Portland has hills. Most times I want getting from point A to B to be pleasant rather than a serious workout.
Towing my wheelchair behind my handcycle isn’t a great commuting option. If I ride somewhere, then I have to deal with getting back in my chair. Then, where do I lock up an enormous handcycle on a busy city sidewalk? Using my handcycle to commute is technically doable, but it’s enough of a pain that I don’t want to deal with it.
There has to be a better way. In talking with a few fellow wheelers, I found that there are a few options that can make commuting for a manual wheelchair user more functional.
SmartDrive MX2+ by Max Mobility
The SmartDrive MX2+ ($5,990 from a variety of DME retailers) is a power assist device that attaches to the back axle of most manual wheelchairs. It’s controlled by a Bluetooth wristband. It can either keep you rolling at the speed you’re pushing, reducing the amount you need to push to maintain speed, or it can provide independent power to get you up hills or ramps.
Unobtrusive: It sits behind your chair frame and doesn’t extend beyond the rear wheels, so maneuvering in tight spaces isn’t compromised. Its out-of-the-way design means that it can stay on your chair, instead of having to detach it when you get somewhere.
Powerful: The motor has enough power to get most people up steep hills and ramps, and with the new wrist bracelet, you can tap your wrist to start the motor from a stop, a nice feature if you don’t have the strength to get started on a hill, or if you’re trying to hold onto something while going up a ramp.
Bracelet functionality: In practice the Bluetooth connection between wrist and motor proves twitchy, at best. In my time testing the SmartDrive, the motor was constantly shutting off when I wanted it to keep going. Other wheelers I talked with have experienced similar issues. For long-distance regular use, the tendency to lose connection to the motor could prove frustrating.
Maximum speed: Top speed for the Smart Drive is basically a fast walk, good enough to make zipping around a compact urban area, neighborhood, or small town easier, but not quick enough to make long-distance treks efficient. The positive side of this low max speed is that it lets you stay on sidewalks if where you live doesn’t have good cycling routes.
This is a fine device that would be useful for someone commuting in certain situations. For instance, someone who lives in a hilly area within a few miles of work or the businesses to which they regularly want to roll. It’s most useful to those with limited arm strength for whom hills are a significant deterrent to community mobility, or those who like pushing places but worry about long-term wear and tear on their shoulders.
Motorized Trike Attachments
These attachments, which turn your everyday manual chair into an electric motorized trike, aren’t seen that often in the U.S., but are commonly used all over the world. Their worldwide popularity makes sense — in places with denser urban areas, rough roads, and less of a car-culture, they make a great option for a chair-user to get around. Davinci, a United Kingdom company, TriRide, an Italian company, and Batec Mobility, a Spanish company, each have multiple interesting options if you can get a hold of one. The most popular version readily available in America is the Firefly by Rio Mobility ($2,395 from Bike-on.com).
All-terrain: By lifting your front casters up off the ground and replacing them with a single, 20-inch front wheel, a motorized trike lets you travel at speed over a variety of surfaces. Gravel, grass and bumpy roads are all a whole lot more manageable with a bigger wheel up front and something other than your arms powering it.
Speed and range: The Firefly has a top speed of 12 mph and an estimated range of 15 miles. That’s plenty to go cruising around town and still be able to make it home without having to recharge mid-trip.
Hand function required: The way the Firefly is setup — regular brake levers and a thumb throttle — means that you need decent hand function to be able to operate it. It wouldn’t take a lot to be able to set it up more quad-friendly controls, but it would take some figuring as there’s no quad option currently available in the United States.
Passive: There’s not much active about using a motorized trike attachment. For me, a big part of enjoying chair commuting is to get the blood flowing a little bit, and you don’t have that option here.
If getting somewhere with convenience is your only concern, then a motorized trike attachment is a great option. They’re functional, versatile, and easy to use. Hills, rough roads, or fatigue don’t have to be deterrents to using your chair to go out.
Attachable handcycles have been around for a long time, but they’ve mostly been sold as recreational devices. If you’re just looking to go out for a ride, they make a rather poor alternative to a lay-down or semi-recumbent handcycle. But for going to do something other than just ride, attachable handcycles have a huge advantage — when you get where you’re going, you can unhook yourself and voilà, you’re sitting in your regular wheelchair. Rio Mobility makes both a power-assisted version, the eDragonfly ($2,895), and a non-assisted base version, the Dragonfly ($1,795). The Electro Drive Lipo Smart Tetra Wheelchair Bike Handcycle ($7,500) from Stricker is an excellent, though pricier option with quad-friendly power assist.
Variety: If you have the strength and live in a fairly flat area, a simple model is about the cheapest mobility device you’re going to find. If you need the power assist to make commuting more functional, there are options starting at a still reasonable $2,800 for a power-assisted DragonFly.
Maximum Speed and Range: For a power-assist model, you’d have a similar speed and range as a motorized trike attachment. But with a handcycle, at least you can still pedal if you run out of juice.
Shoulder Health: Anyone who regularly uses a handcycle knows how well they work your back muscles and help open up your shoulders from the constant forward push motion of everyday chair use. Using a handcycle attachment as a means of community mobility lets you get your heart pumping a bit and works to balance out your shoulders and keep them healthy in the long term. Even if the SmartDrive lets you push less than you normally would, you’re still having to push to go anywhere.
Maneuverability: Even though they’re shorter in length than a regular handcycle, an attachable model is still awkward to maneuver in tight spaces. Going into any businesses, you’re probably going to want to detach it and leave it outside, which means finding a space to park and lock it up.
Here is what Max Woodbury — a C5-6 quad who uses a Stricker power assist model for everything from going to a date night dinner with his wife to commuting to work — told me when I asked his overall impression of his attachable handcycle’s functionality: “It’s amazing.”
Clear enough. It lets you get the blood flowing a little, keep your shoulders healthy, and ride with your kids or nondisabled friends without making them slow down for you, all while being able to detach and stay in your everyday chair when you get where you’re going.
• Bike-on has a good overview of the attachable models available in the United States here: bike-on.com/handcycles/attachable-handcycles. The site also sells many cycles, often with discounts from the manufacturer’s price.
• SmartDrive MX2 by Max Mobility, www.max-mobility.com.
• Firefly Electric Handcycle by Rio Mobility, riomobility.com.
• Davinci, www.davincimobility.com/wheelchair-attachments.
• TriRide, www.trirideitalia.com/en/about-us.
• Batec Mobility, batec-mobility.com/en/our-handbikes/models.
• Dragonfly (non-power assist) by Rio Mobility, riomobility.com.
• eDragonfly (power-assisted pedal model) by Rio Mobility, riomobility.com.
• Electro Drive Lipo Smart Tetra Wheelchair Bike Handcycle by Stricker, Bike-on.com.