OT student puts power wheelchairs to the test for Craig Hospital staff

Carolyn Swisher at an info table

Ever wonder what challenges might be involved in driving a power wheelchair? Colorado State University occupational therapy student Carolyn Swisher, combined learning and fun in her Wheelchair-a-Palooza event to test the features of power wheelchairs. Swisher was completing her Level IIB Fieldwork at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado. Craig Hospital is a rehabilitation hospital that specializes in traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries.

Participants test wheelchair turning radius on an obstacle course.
Participants test wheelchair turning radius.

“I decided it would be fun to do an obstacle course where the features of the chairs could be highlighted and compared against each other,” Swisher said.

Start your chairs

The project aimed to have the occupational and physical therapy staff of Craig Hospital learn about the wheelchair models they prescribe to patients. Swisher found that the staff have never compared the power wheelchairs back-to-back. The event gave the staff an opportunity to compare wheelchair models for the sake of education and understanding of the different models’ features. Participating in this event gave the staff of Craig hospital knowledge and experience about the different wheelchair models that will best fit the needs of their patients.

“It’s super important for staff to understand all of the differences between the chairs so we can accurately guide our patients,” Swisher said.

The event had eight demo wheelchairs donated from vendors and two chairs prepped on site. Swisher invited the staff of Craig Hospital to participate in the event by testing chairs on an obstacle course. Models included those with front-wheel bases, mid-wheel bases and rear-wheel bases. This means that the pivot drive wheel is on a specific location on the model.

A woman tests a wheelchair's ability to function in grassy terrain.
Participant tests wheelchair in grassy terrain.

Testing different terrain

Donations from Lowes and FedEx helped Swisher put together her obstacle course. Different obstacles included rough outdoor terrain, cone weaving, tight indoor spaces and barrel racing (making tight turns). Swisher used natural outdoor terrain and indoor flooring such as carpet to mimic the same experience that patients will likely have after they are discharged from the hospital.

At the end of the event, participants were encouraged to give their feedback about which wheelchair model they thought was the best for each environment. The results of the survey compiled by Swisher show the strengths and weaknesses of each wheelchair navigating different environments.

Positive response

After completing the event, Swisher donated the materials and maps to replicate the course in the future. The response to Swisher’s project was well received and the overall response was positive.

Two participants test wheelchairs in a gravel pit.
Two participants test wheelchairs in rough outdoor terrain.

“This was awesome! You put a lot of thought, effort, and work into this project. Best student project I’ve ever seen/participated in,” wrote one participant.

“My first goal was staff learning, but my indirect goal was how we can guide our patients. The hope was that staff would be gaining experience and developing their own preferences of wheelchairs so they would be much more equipped to guide patients in making that decision,” Swisher said.

The Department of Occupational Therapy is part of the CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.