Alternative ways to control a power wheelchair

Power wheelchairs can be a great way for people with limited mobility to get around.  The standard way to control a power wheelchair is via a joystick typically mounted on either side of the wheelchair.

However, if you have a limited range of motion or strength, then using the standard joystick may be difficult. There are a growing number of alternative options that are becoming available.  These include light touch mini joysticks, switches, touchpads and sip and puff controls.

Mini Joystick

Mini Joystick for a power wheelchair

Mini Joystick are usually much smaller than the standard wheelchair joystick.  They required less force to deflect or operate the joystick, which may be a low as 18g of pressure.  Like a standard wheelchair joystick most of them are proportional, so the more they are deflected the faster the chair will move.  However some joysticks are controlled by the pressure applied and do not deflect. To keep the joystick compact, buttons for the power, lights and actuators are not part of the joystick housing, as these controls are operated by alternative methods.  Mini joysticks may activate a mode change on pushing directly down on the joystick from neutral position.

Touchpads

Touchpad controller on power wheelchair

Touchpads feel similar to what you may find on a computer for controlling its mouse cursor.  They are based on touch and no pressure is required.  Touchpads can be configured for the user so that touching a specific part of the touchpad relative to the center will move in that direction.  Alternatively it can be operated by dragging a finger along the touchpad in the desired direction.  An earlier blogpost explains this in some more detail, http://www.atandme.com/?p=674

Switches

Head switches on power wheelchair

Switches by their nature do not have proportional control.  So activating a switch will move in a particular direction and releasing the switch will stop.  However as a power wheelchair’s acceleration and deceleration characteristics can be setup to be gradual, driving can still be smooth.  Switches can be mechanical momentary switches or based on proximity where no physical contact is required.  Multiple switches can be used, one for each direction, three switches as in a head array or a single switch that is used with some scanning display.

Sip and Puff Controls

User in power wheelchair driving with sip and puff controls

These are operated by sucking and blowing on a mouthpiece.  Sip and puff pressures are programmable and will also have a mode change feature in order to operate other chair controls such as lights or actuators.  They require quite a bit of practice by the user to get good at driving.  Not only does the wheelchair electronics distinguish between a sip and a puff, it can also recognize the strength of the sip and puff.  Basic Sip and Puff pressure is interpretation as… HARD PUFF – Forward, SOFT PUFF – Right, SOFT SIP – Left and HARD SIP – Reverse.

In some cases, it may be necessary to also connect an emergency stop switch.  The stop switch needs to be mounted in a position for easy activation by the user.

Further details can be found from the following supplier websites.

Adaptive Switch Laboratories

Switch It

mo-Vis power wheelchair accessories

Dynamic Controls secondary controls

 

16 comments

  1. Hello: Due to age and other factors, I am considering a power wheelchair. And since I have trouble with my right side,( leg foot arm and hand.) and need my left arm and hand to carry items, handbag etc. I.am Wondering if a powered wheelchair can be controlled with my good left foot only. No mouth or head controlls Please. Do you have any ideas for me? Thank You Josie

  2. I am looking for a powered chair with Head array as my client has only good head control. My client is CP quadriplegic. Which chair should I go with?

    1. Hi Manju,

      There is a range of Head Arrays for users that have good head control.
      There are mainly characterised into either Switched Head Arrays (using proximity sensors or mechanical switches), or Proportional Head Arrays, although some head arrays use both technologies within the head array. In general, proportional head arrays will give you more precise control.
      The main companies producing head arrays are Switch-It, ASL, Stealth Products and Permobil. Not all head arrays work on all power wheelchair, so you need to check this out with the supplier.
      You need to have a look at the products offered by these companies above and see which one may suit your client. Try to trial products if possible before the purchase.
      Here is a nice video that gives an overview of how a typical head array may work
      https://youtu.be/BlWPcvdZsKs

  3. I’m a Quadriplegic I use a mouth stick on a tablet but I’m looking for a mouth control like a joy stick to control a hew power wheelchair that I’m going to get though Medicare and medical and I’m wanting the newer quantum q6 Edgar power wheelchair and the things I want on it to make me feel comfortable and safe and be more Independent so if you can show me were i can find them devices that i can show them so t will get a wheelchair that I don’t have trouble using it and ajusted everything when I get put in it

    1. Hi Roger, if you want to control your power wheelchair with your lips them maybe a light touch joystick is an option for you. See the following two manufacturers Switch-It and mo-Vis both are companyies that have small light touch joysticks. These can be mounted possibly on a swing-away arm for you. Another option to consider is Sip and Puff

  4. My wife’s reactions are slow using a joy stick control due to a stroke a few years ago. She has tried a couple of joy stick operated wheel chairs without satisfaction. Is there a less sensitive controlled chair for indoor, restricted area use?

    1. Hi Lee, most power wheelchairs have a number of driving profiles that the end-user can select from the chair controls. The drive profiles are typically set up for the user and their driving environment. Parameters such as driving acceleration, deceleration, driving speed, turning speed etc are customised for the user, and sensitivity can be reduced for indoor use. So ideally the user can select a drive profile to suit where they wish to drive for example indoor or outdoor environment. Editing the drive profiles requires programming tools and is typically performed by the wheelchair supplier or therapist.

  5. I need a touch control for my jazzy wheelchair. How much would this cost and can I just plug it in to where the joystick plug in is? Does it need to be programmed by electronics person?
    Thank you for your time and attention to this.
    Lyn

    1. Hi Lyn, Sunrise Medical now supply the switch-it Touch Drive 2 from $3845, this does not include the mounting. Yes, this is very much a job for the wheelchair supplier that will have the programmer to install the hardware and tools to mount the device. This type of input needs to be trialled before purchase, see if this option is available with your wheelchair supplier.

  6. Hi my mother is having difficulty controlling her power scooter “wheelchair “ with the joystick controller. And frankly I don’t understand the concept either. Going forward and straight back is no issue, but when turning in reverse/backing up the joystick has to be deflected in the opposite direction of travel??? So pulling the joystick to the back right the chair moves back left. Is there any way to have the direction of travel match the joystick deflection in forward and reverse??

    1. Hi Jerry,
      I am not aware there is a way to have the direction of travel match the joystick deflection in forward and reverse the way you have suggested. You can swap the left-right direction but this would fix it when moving in reverse but would have the opposite effect when moving forward, so this would not be ideal. It could be a feature with some wheelchairs but I haven’t seen it before. Each power wheelchair manufacturer has different configuration settings that the wheelchair supplier will have access to (usually the occupational therapist). It might be best to discuss with your wheelchair supplier?

  7. I cant check with supplier, as I got the chair as a used one. I hope you missed a decimal point, because theres no way I xan pay nearly $4000. I think my chair is a Jazzy made around 2008.

  8. I have MS and have lost the use of my extremities and need to get a sip-N-puff controller and having a hard time finding information on it any leads would be very appreciated thank you

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