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An Introduction to Wheelchair Scooterboarding - Erik Kondo

Updated: Apr 12

Youth on a bicycle next to wheelchair user on a wheelchair scooterboard.
Presidential Rail Trail in the Mount Washington Valley in New Hampshire.

Wheelchair scooterboarding is the concept of using an electric scooter like device to power a manual wheelchair. There are two main categories of wheelchair scooterboarding devices: Do It Yourself Devices (DIYDs) and Standard Commercial Unit (SCUs). Where DIYD involves creating a device by adapting a scooter that was NOT originally intended for wheelchair users to wheelchair use, and SCU involves using a mobility device that was intended for wheelchair use. Both of these devices have advantages and disadvantages that need to be considered when determining which type of device is best for you.

DIYDs exist because of the numerous disadvantages of SCUs. Therefore, it makes sense to begin with understanding the functionality, benefits, and drawbacks of SCUs first.

Standard Commercial Units

A SCU is typically an electric powered front wheel that turns the rider’s wheelchair into a tricycle and pulls the wheelchair forward. It is designed to raise the wheelchair’s front casters off the ground. The powered wheel has steering column and handlebar assembly that is mounted in some manner to the rider’s wheelchair. Typically, the brake and throttle controls are on the handlebar.

SCUs typically vary in the diameter of the powered wheel, strength of the motor, the mounting system, the capacity of the battery. These factors heavily influence the overall weight of the device and its cost. There are many different manufacturers of these devices and more and more companies are getting involved.

Generally speaking, the rougher the terrain to be ridden, the larger the front wheel, the stronger the motor, the more robust the mounting system, and greater capacity of battery required. These factors lead to increased weight of the components and a higher cost. The dynamics are as follows:

A large front wheel is required to roll over obstacles

• A large tire with tread is required for traction on dirt, grass, mud, gravel, etc.

• A powerful motor is required to overcome the terrain and ascend inclines.

• A significant amount of electrical energy is expended to power the motor.

The cost of popular brand name SCUs suitable for rough terrain ranges from $5-7,000+/-. On the other hand, brand name SCUs designed for urban environments fall in the $2-3,000+/- range. It is important to note that while electric scooters designed for the able-bodied are affected by the same factors above, but the difference is the selling price. Popular Off-road scooters typically fall in the $1-2,000+/- range and urban scooters cost a few hundred dollars for similar functionality. Therefore, a disadvantage of SCUs is their high cost, while an advantage of DIYDs are their comparative low cost.

Besides the influence of economy of scale pricing, the custom mounting system of SCUs add an additional expense. Their designs also subject them to riding stress and potential failure. On the other hand, DIYD don’t use expensive mounting systems, thereby creating another cost advantage.

It is important to keep in mind that all scooters (DIYDs and SCUs) have performance limits where they no longer function as desired. Typical limits are:

  • Incline is too steep to ascend.

  • Terrain is too slippery for traction.

  • Battery exhaustion.

  • Electrical failure.

  • Turning radius is too large for environment.

As a wheelchair user, you must have a plan to deal with situations when your scooter encounters a failure point. An able-bodied person will simply pickup or push his or her scooter and continue on his way. What a wheelchair user will do is highly dependent on the size and configuration of the scooter, his/her physical ability, and availability of assistance.

It is important to keep in mind that wheelchair scooterboards are tricycles and are subject to limits of tricycle performance. Tricycles do not corner well at high speed. Tricycles tip over on slide slopes. Therefore, a wheelchair scooterboard performs best when going straight and fast and worst when turning at high speed or when on a side hill at slow speed. Therefore, while there are lots of photos of wheelchair scooterboards with large front wheels and fat tires, these devices do NOT perform like off-road bicycles or dirt bikes. They may look like they do, but unlike two wheeled devices or devices with two wheels in the front (one or two in the rear), they are subject to tipping over when not going straight on even terrain.

Wheelchair scooterboards have a relatively high center of gravity. The fixed mounting system used by SCUs prevents any type of effective leaning into the turn. Front wheel drive is ineffective on steep inclines. The overall effect is a mobility device that performs well in spacious urban environments and moderately rough terrain. But performs poorly on truly rough terrain.

The main reasons for using a wheelchair scooterboard are as follows:

1. Power assist for day to day mobility.

(Lightweight, short turning radius, low speed, moderate range, portable)

2. Commuting/long distance transportation.

(Portable, long range, high speed)

3. Mobility on moderately rough terrain.

(Powerful motor, long range, large front wheel, study design)

4. Mobility enjoyment.

(Varies with the individual)

Each of these uses have different requirements. These requirements are also affected by the user’s unique circumstances. Therefore, a device that works well for one person in one type of environment may not work well for another. Therefore, it is important to have a realistic idea of how you intend to use your device in order to purchase the proper one for you.

My youngest son has three bicycles, a mountain bike with full suspension and knobby tires, a hybrid with partial suspension and moderate tires, and a road bike with no suspension and narrow tires. The total cost of these three bikes was about $150 (they were obtained used). My point here is that able-bodied mobility devices are cheap and specific to use. You don’t use a road bike on mountain trails, and a mountain bike to ride long distances on the road. There is no “best” bike. There is also no “best” type of wheelchair scooterboard.

Do It Yourself Devices

The rationale behind DIYD is that SCUs are expensive. Therefore, it makes sense to modify inexpensive electric scooters for wheelchair use specific to the type of use desired. Once again, there is no “best” scooter to modify. It all depends upon the type of use desired and the specific abilities of the rider.

There are different strategies to modify scooters. The type of strategy you use depends on a number of factors as explained above. Scooters designed for stand up riders have handlebars that are too high for wheelchair users to use comfortably. Yes, some wheelchair users which long arms and sufficient trunk control maybe able to use a tall handlebar, but most will want it lowered significantly. Therefore, it makes sense to look for a scooter with high handlebar adjustability or one that can be easily lowered.

Typically, the wheelchair’s footplate is placed on the scooter’s deck which raises the front casters off the ground and tips the wheelchair backwards. The higher the scooter deck, the greater the rearward tip a angle and the less comfortable it is to ride. Therefore, everything else being equal, it makes sense to get a scooter with an existing low scooter deck or one that can be lowered in height.

The method that the wheelchair is attached to the scooter depends upon the preference of the rider. Some people like to create a fixed mount to secure their wheelchair to the scooter. It is my opinion that a flexible mounting system has certain advantages since it is less likely to break, it allows for greater leaning capability, and it is faster to mount/dismount.

I use what I call a Pocket Mount which is a depression to “drop” the wheelchair’s footplate into. The pocket allows the scooter to pull the wheelchair by pushing on the rear of the footplate. The rider’s weight on the footplate presses it into the Pocket Mount. Dismounting is done by lifting the footplate out through the use of a wheelchair wheelie. I find this method to be easy to build, highly effective, and fast to use.

When it comes to mounting and dismounting the scooter, it is helpful if the scooter is standing upright. Standing can be achieved by either a kickstand or scooter with two stabilizing wheels in the rear. The advantage of the stabilizing wheels is that the scooter is also easier to move by pushing it and not having to hold it up at the same time which is a considerable challenge for wheelchair users. This the reason I think that three wheel scooters are uniquely suitable for modification.

When the scooter is in motion, a two wheel scooter with a flexible mount is held up by the user and the dynamics of motion. Conversely, a three wheel scooter provides stability to the wheelchair user which is helpful for riders with minimal trunk control. A two wheel/three wheel scooter with a fixed mount will provide the most stability to the rider since it is fixed to the wheelchair.

Which type of scooter is the “best”? It depends. I use a DIYD in which the Pocket Mount is created by the rear half of a longboard with a single truck (2 wheels). I find this adaption to be simple to create, light, and also stable enough to keep the scooter upright while standing.

When I am going long distances, I find it more comfortable to place a piece of firm foam padding on the front of my backrest. The foam reduces the angle created by the rearward tilt of my wheelchair and provides my back with support. I use this same method when using my DIY Free Wheel/Big Front Wheel type device (tricycle wheel).

When determining the type of scooter to purchase, it is important to keep in mind that photos and videos of other wheelchair users using devices never show the full story. The full story includes questions such as:

  • How did the wheelchair user get there?

  • How was the scooter transported?

  • Did the wheelchair user get stuck and need help at some point?

  • Is the wheelchair user alone or participating with others?

  • What type of mobility devices are other people using?

  • Who paid for the device and how much did it cost?

  • What happens if the device breaks down while out and about?

  • Who will repair it?

  • How much does it cost to repair?

Determining the scooter that is best for you starts with you realistically thinking about:

  • Who will you be riding with (alone or with others)?

  • Where will you be riding (building, sidewalks, roads, off-road)?

  • What type of riding will you be doing (slow/fast, distances, inclines, stunts?

  • Why do you want a scooter as opposed to some other mobility device?

  • When will you be riding in terms of seasons, weather, day/night?

  • How much are you able/willing to spend on the device?

  • How are your wheelchair skills?

  • What is your level of risk tolerance?

  • Are you experienced with riding high(ish) speed motorized devices?

  • Are you willing/able to make structural/electrical modifications as needed?

The bottom line is that in order to buy or create a system that works well for you, you need to take some time to think about the above questions, so you end up with a functional and enjoyable mobility device.

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