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.


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,


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



  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. 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

    1. I use a fanny pack as a purse could get stolen. I live in a tough ‘hood. Also have a backpack to carry things that are loose, as well as a side pocket below armrest. I would love a foot pedal too. Im looking at alternatives. It takes some serious practice to get around in chair. Mines old, but Im grateful for it.
      Maybe try renting one to make sure. I liked my 4 wheel scooter much better but it was too big for my tiny kitchen. You might need to modify cabinets under sink so you can get close enough to work there. Good luck!

  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

  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.

    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

    1. My mother has had a stroke and is unable to walk. She would love an electric wheelchair to aid her independence but she has macular degeneration and has very little sight. She can use her arms and hands ok. Can you suggest anything that may be helpful Thanks

      1. Hi Sandra,
        Sorry to hear about your mother’s stroke. I would be quite cautious introducing a power wheelchair if she has very little sight. There are significant dangers if you can’t see the curb when driving a power wheelchair. Maybe a manual chair with a power assist option may be a better choice something like E-Move™ which is a pushrim activated power assisted wheel (PAPAW) attachment that uses motors and a battery to augment power applied by the use of one or both pushrims during propulsion or braking.
        Your community occupational therapist or wheelchair supplier may be able to assist with advice.



  9. Interesting Sean, that touch device seems to be the same thing I developed back in 2005/6 😉 Things really move slow in the AT world

    1. Hi Kelly, in fairness the SWITCH-IT TouchDrive 2 was developed some time ago back now. It’s quite pricey and not suitable outdoors with our wet Irish climate. Apart from your prototype, I have seen no other alternative touchpad controller for wheelchair driving.

  10. I have a love hate relationship with chair. need it badly, but the controller is so poorly designed that Im forever crashing and moving laundry machines and fridge as well as small loose cabinets. I have looked long and hard for a better replacement. We have self driving cars, duh… I will look into this one. Thanks for your emails!

    1. Hi Lyn,

      Although self-driving cars have started to come about none of the big wheelchair manufacturers have any autonomous wheelchairs. It may be sometime before you see this. However, WHILL Personal Electric Vehicles could be the start of this onto wheelchairs. An alternative to autonomous wheelchairs is obstacle avoidance.
      Smile Smart System powerchairs are standard chairs that have line following capacity and anti-collision sensors.


  11. Lol, Im also visually impaired which makes it hard to manage. I bump the joystick which makes me crash. Our health insurance wants to dictate which brand we use. These alternative chairs sound interesting. Thanks for the info!!

  12. I have a power wheelchair. My Insurance just payed for it. I seem that I can’t control the joy stick. It is extremely sensitive. I’m all over the street. Which makes me very stressed! Makes me not want to drive it! Not sure what the rules are for a exchange, a trade. Being my Insurance paying for it.I’ve only had the chair, maybe 3 weeks. Is their a solution to my huge problem?

    1. Hi Sara,

      It looks like your wheelchair provider may not have setup your wheelchair for you properly. This is something that can easily be fixed, but it does require your wheelchair supplier/provider to adjust the appropriate setting as they will have the required wheelchair programmer. Depending on your wheelchair there are settings such as acceleration, deceleration, and joystick throw which will impacts sensitivity of the joystick. Also, how to hold the Joystick may impact your control, see the following video



  13. • Perhaps you can help me with your engineering and equipment expertise. Some years ago, I suffered a C3 spinal injury and have been using a well constructed battery-powered motorized wheelchair (Permobil M3) which operates through a joystick (forward, backward, stop, tilt, recline to lay flat, legs out straight, return to upright position, left, right, elevate, etc.) . The wheelchair also has a control panel on the back of the chair which can perform the same functions when used by a caregiver…
    • I have since lost use of my hands so I cannot control the wheelchair with the joystick. And I have to depend on others to do the functions.
    • I would like to voice-activate my wheelchair to accomplish the same functions that the chair can presently do.
    • I currently use the Dragon NaturallySpeaking 15 for dictation to my PC and it works well with my PC. Can I do the same using this program or another program, to voice command my wheelchair?
    • I would appreciate any advice you can give me. Thank you in advance.
    • Eric D Gerst, email; cell phone 610-420-8598 May 27, 2024

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