Taking a driving test, and other things you didn’t know about getting your first power wheelchair

Having an electric wheelchair will be a lot easier on my shoulders and will allow me to keep my independence

I have just got my first power wheelchair and I thought I would share what I have learned. There are some things about the process I didn’t know and I’m guessing you might not know either.

You need to do a sort of driving test

Did you know that before you get an electric wheelchair you must do a driving test? As a wheelchair user for most of my life, I did not know this. I thought when I got my first power wheelchair the occupational therapist (OT) would give me the chair, sign a couple of forms and that would be it. But no, there is a long assessment process to make sure that I am safe using an electric wheelchair, which includes multiple driving tests which I had no idea about.

As I am quarantining before hip replacement surgery, I had my first driving test down the road from my house. This test was for about 20 minutes. I know and like my OTs. They help me find the correct resources to live a more independent and fulfilled life. They walked behind me and told me what they wanted me to do, which was to travel along the footpath from my house in the safest safe way, which was in the centre of the path. I have travelled this route from my home to town thousands of times, so I found this first test very easy.

But I also know that I must have these lessons to ensure my safety using this new chair. These lessons will also take place over a three- to six-month period, during which they will bring me into my local town where they will teach me to navigate the footpaths, roads and buildings safely.


I was a little nervous for the first outing, but happy to have gotten the chance to figure out my chair outside. I had taken the first day to learn how to use it inside, which was a fun experience because my house is an ordinary four-bedroom bungalow and this wheelchair is bigger than my regular wheelchair, so I had to take my time figuring out how to navigate it inside. My dad said I should get a beeper to let people know when I’m coming (it actually does have a beeper!).

My two OTs agreed it would be best for me to move up to the second speed outside.

It didn’t seem that fast but if you put too much pressure on the lever it jerks forward a bit too quickly. As I was driving down the road from my house, I felt a little more confident, and by the time I had to cross to the nearby hotel, I could do so without the assistance of my OTs. They would not let me use the full speed 6km/h because they think I still need to finish a few more lessons before they consider me ready and confident enough to do so.

When it came time for me to go on to the footpaths, I felt a little nervous. I have never been able to get on a footpath by myself because I have poor upper body strength. It’s also very dangerous as it’s easy for a person to fall off a path using a manual chair if you’re not careful. Having this powerchair is giving me the chance to safely go on to a path independently as it’s very hard to fall off using a powerchair because it’s heavier and more solid.

It’s an adjustment if you’re used to a manual chair

I have been a wheelchair user and patient of the Wheelchair Clinic within Community Healthcare West for 10 years.

I have a condition called Hurler syndrome. It’s a genetic blood condition. People with the condition need a stem-cell bone marrow transplant to survive and it sometimes affects a person’s bone joints. In my case, it’s affected my hips.

Because my hips are weak, I needed a wheelchair to make my life easier. I have had three wheelchairs overall in those 10 years and I always chose to have a manual wheelchair even though I struggle pushing it (which I hate to admit). Due to scoliosis, I have metal rods in my back, which means I can’t move my shoulders too much. When I’m pushing my manual chair, I am told it’s causing more harm than good because it’s affecting my posture and undoing the work my surgeon has done in the past. So, if I use the manual wheelchair a lot it causes me pain in my shoulders and contributes to the pain in my hips.

For many years that was all right because I had my family or friends or a PA (personal assistant) to push me when it was needed, but in the last year or two, I have become much more independent. Having an electric wheelchair will be a whole lot easier on my shoulders so I won’t be relying so much on other people, and it will allow me to keep my independence.

There are many different kinds of electric chair

It wasn’t until I went to the wheelchair service to start the process of getting a new wheelchair (my current one is four years old so I need something more updated) and having a long conversation about my previous experiences with wheelchairs, and about what my life is like now as a 21-year-old, that my OT suggested an electric wheelchair would suit me a whole lot better. She said it would give me much more support for my back as I also have scoliosis.

I had very mixed feelings about this. Of course I wanted more comfort for my back and shoulders but using a manual chair is literally the only way I can exercise my upper body. After another conversation about my concerns and a test drive of an electric wheelchair, my great OT and I came up with a compromise. I would get a new manual wheelchair to use when I am with my family and travelling by car, which will give me the chance to exercise my upper body, but I will be using my new electric wheelchair 75 per cent of the time because it will be so much easier on me.

The next step was deciding on what type of electric wheelchair would suit me best. I had no clue because there are so many different types you can choose from, and they can all go at different speeds and are different sizes. There can be slim-chair models and more bulky ones. The electric wheelchair you get depends on what type of support and what your needs would be.

I don’t like having a bulky chair because I am quite active for a wheelchair user. I chose a Quickie Salsa M2 because it was a smaller model (I laughed when I learned the name). It has a mode called “tilt” which brings me back into my backrest when I think it is needed because I have an awful habit of not sitting right into the backrest, which again is interfering with my posture.

I can say that after having this wheelchair for over a week and testing that mode, it has helped me. I have finally admitted to myself that I was having soreness in my shoulders because of pushing my manual chair. Having this mode relieves the soreness and it also helps my hip as I am not moving as much, which means I can keep my hip in a good, comfortable position.

You have to charge it a lot

I was surprised by how often I had to charge the chair. Depending on how much I use it, I might have to charge it every night. This does make me consider how often I will have to charge it once the warm weather comes and I’m using it more.

Having to charge it will also make me very conscious of where I will be using the chair. It uses a standard three-pin plug, but I am a little sceptical of finding accessible places where I will be able to plug it in and charge it.

There is a lot of paperwork

I was also surprised by how much paperwork there would be. I needed my GP to say that I was allowed to use the electric wheelchair and that is a bit of a process because they had to ask me so many questions including some personal questions which I didn’t think they would need to know.

The OT asked similar questions. “How much time do I spend in my wheelchair?” “Do I drink or smoke?” “Do I wear socks?” (This was to see if I needed modifications on the foot plate).

They are not too hard to answer. They are there to ensure that you can safely use an electric wheelchair.

They also told me that if a person abuses their powerchair by driving too fast or too carelessly, gardaí have the power to contact your OT to ask them to come and do a welfare check on you.

Sometimes, they can take the chair away.

Some things you may need

Invest in a good-quality bag because powerchairs typically don’t have the space for bags you’d have underneath your manual chair. I got a good and cheap one to keep all my personal belongings in online. It hangs off the arm rest where it’s easily accessed and moved.

When I use my manual chair, my hands are busy all the time, so I do not notice the cold. So, the last thing I just wanted to say is make sure when you do use your electric wheelchair in the winter to invest in some good gloves or you’ll be in for a freezing time!