Wheelchair Skills Training - Rolling

Original Editor - Lee Kirby as part of the Wheelchair Service Provision Content Development Project

Top Contributors - Kim Jackson  

Rolls Forward[edit | edit source]

Description and Rationale[edit | edit source]

The learner moves the wheelchair forward on a smooth level surface. Forward rolling is a skill used during many wheelchair activities. Most bouts of wheelchair use are relatively short but occur many times a day.The ability to manage longer distances allows wheelchair users to get around in the community (e.g. getting from a parking lot to an office or getting around inside a store). 

General Training Tips[edit | edit source]

There are three segments of this skill: starting, rolling straight and stopping. Stopping will be dealt with separately later.

  • When first attempting to move forward, the direction in which any swivel casters are trailing can lead to someinitial resistance to movement or lateral deviation as movement begins. The learner should reposition the casters in the appropriate direction before setting out. Learning how to reposition the casters is a technique that is useful for a number of skills. To reposition the casters, the wheelchair should be moved short distances in a manner that causes the casters to swivel (e.g. forward, then left, than backward, then right).
  • When starting to roll forward, the wheelchair user should lean forward slightly and avoid overly vigorous accelerations that could cause the wheelchair to tip over backward.
  • Once up to speed, each propulsion cycle includes propulsion and recovery phases.

Propulsion Phase:[edit | edit source]

Propulsion mechanics vary with the task and the characteristics of the wheelchair user. However, on smooth, level surfaces there are some general guidelines that should be considered the starting point.

  • During the propulsion phase, the hands should initially match the speed of the moving wheels. 
  • To propel the wheelchair straight forward, the wheelchair user should grasp the hand-rims and push evenly with both hands. He/she should not wrap the thumbs around the hand-rims, but point them forward.
  • The wrists should be in a roughly neutral orientation, avoiding the extremes of range.
  • To improve friction, if necessary, the wheelchair user may rest the palms of the hands on the tires in addition to using the hand-rims.
  • The wheelchair user should lean forward as the elbows are extended during the latter part of the propulsion phase, to get more contact time between the hands and the hand-rims and to reduce the chance of a rear tip. This is the first example of a skill that can benefit by leaning. Because the weight of most wheelchair users is large relative to the weight of the wheelchair, leaning can have a major effect on the relative weight on the different wheels. Leaning affects the stability of the wheelchair, traction and rolling resistance. Leaning is a strategy used often in the later skills. 
  • To minimize shoulder injury due to repetitive strain, it is generally accepted that the wheelchair user should try to push with long, slow strokes, allowing the wheelchair to coast between strokes where possible. However, thistechnique may actually increase the loads on the shoulders during each cycle (although it is generally assumed that the reduction in the number of cycles offsets this). 
  • As noted earlier, hand positions can be illustrated by having the wheelchair user imagine the right rear wheel as the face of a clock; the initial  and final contact positions for the wheel might then be referred to as 11:00 and 2:00 o’clock. This “three-hour time period” corresponds to a contact angle of 90°.  
  • To maintain a straight direction during the coast between pushes, the wheelchair user may need to push harder on the side toward which the wheelchair is deviating or use the fingers on the hand-rim to apply friction on the other side. Although it is possible to coast for several meters from a single push, a cadence of about 1 push per second is commonly used, at least in part to maintain directional control. If the learner is having difficulties in achieving the desired cadence, the trainer can provide audible cues (e.g. by clapping).

Recovery Phase:[edit | edit source]

A recovery path for the hands below the hand-rims is usually recommended for wheelchair users propelling for any distance on smooth level surfaces. After releasing the hand-rims at the end of the propulsive phase, the arms can be allowed to swing in a relaxed pendular fashion below the hand-rims (the “semi-circular” recovery pattern) back toward where the propulsive phase will begin for the next cycle.  (The hands need to move slightly outward as well as backward, to avoid contact with the rear wheels.) To reinforce the desired path of the hands, the trainer can ask the wheelchair user to touch the rear-wheel axles during each recovery phase (“like the drive shaft of a choo-choo train”). This allows the hands to make initial contact with the hand-rims while moving upward. 

  • An additional reason to reach back during the recovery phase and to use long strokes is to exercise the shoulder retractor muscles and maintain shoulder retraction range. This may help to offset the tendency for manual wheelchair users to become round-shouldered due to muscle imbalance and loss of flexibility.
  • Wheelchair users with weak or insensitive hands may prefer to slide their hands back along the hand-rims (the “arc” recovery pattern), rather than letting go at the end of the propulsive phase, but any friction should be minimized to avoid braking. Short strokes with arc recoveries may be appropriate for propelling short distances in confined spaces when fine control is the priority. 

Progression [edit | edit source]

Speed and accuracy are inversely related. It is advisable to begin movement skills with accuracy before increasing the speed. Start in a smooth level indoor space and progress to the outdoor setting.

Variations [edit | edit source]

  • The learner can experiment with different speeds.
  • A strip of bubble wrap can be used for the wheelchair to straddle, providing audible feedback if a straight path is not followed.
  • To work on directional control, the learner can follow a wall or sidewalk edge while trying to stay within an arm’s reach.
  • The wheelchair user can see how far he/she can roll on a single push.
  • The wheelchair user can see how quicklyhe/she can cover a distance.
  • The wheelchair user can try propelling with one hand at a time (e.g. as when carrying a cup of coffee).
  • The wheelchair user can try to straddle objects of various heights and widths (e.g. using a few bricks) to better understand theclearance between the wheels and under the wheelchair.
  • After weaving around objects, it is important to remember to return to the proper propulsion/recovery pattern. An easy, multi-task activity is to weave through cones (e.g. during the “turns while moving” skill) and then transition into a few pushes in a straight line before returning to the cones.

Rolls Backwards[edit | edit source]

Description and Rationale[edit | edit source]

The learner moves the wheelchair backward on a smooth level surface. Backward rolling is a skill used during many wheelchair activities. However, a short distance is usually all that is necessary, unless overcoming high rolling resistance (e.g. on a soft surface or ascending an incline using foot propulsion). 

General Training Tips[edit | edit source]

If backing up immediately follows rolling forward, then the casters will be trailing backward rather than forward as they will while moving backward. As the backing up begins, there may be some initial resistance and directional instability as the casters move into the forward-trailing position. The casters can easily be repositioned by moving them in a circular path. 

  • The learner should proceed slowly and look over both shoulders regularly to avoid obstacles and collisions. Using the analogy of backing up a motor vehicle may be helpful. Directional stability is more difficult to maintain when backing up a rear-wheel-drive wheelchair. This may lead to a sinuous path, with a series of deviations and over-corrections (“fish-tailing”). This may not be apparent when wheeling backward for a short distance, so a longer distance should be used for training purposes. Slowing down will make it easier for the learner to steer.
  • In many ways, the technique is the opposite of what is used for rolling forward (as dealt with in the previous skill). To propel the wheelchair straight backward, the wheelchair user should reach forward, grasp the hand-rims and pull evenly backward. 
  • Some wheelchair users with very weak arms (e.g. people with tetraplegia) may find it more effective to make contact under the hand-rims with the palms up. Others may prefer to place both hands on the backs of the wheels (about 11:00 o’clock, using the clock analogy) with the arms straight and the shoulders shrugged. Then, the wheelchair user can lean back and use the body weight to push down on the wheels.
  • Unlike forward rolling, it is not easy to coast backward without deviating to one side or the other. Therefore, the length of the strokes is usually shorter when rolling backward.
  • Because the distances are usually short, there is no need to use long propulsion strokes or to recover the hands below the hand-rims.

Variations: [edit | edit source]

  • As for the “rolls forward” training section. 
  • Bubble wrap can be placed behind a moving rear wheel without the learner’s knowledge to provide audible feedback that shoulder checks are needed.

Rolls On Soft Surface[edit | edit source]

Description and Rationale[edit | edit source]

The learner moves the wheelchair a short distance on a soft surface. There are many types of soft surfaces (e.g. carpet, dirt, grass, gravel, sand or snow) that a wheelchair user may encounter. Propulsion is more difficult on such surfaces (increased rolling resistance) because the wheels tend to sink into the surface, especially wheels that are narrow or of small diameter.

General Training Tips[edit | edit source]

  • When approaching a section of soft or irregular terrain, the wheelchair user should look ahead and plan a route that will minimize difficulties. When proceeding across a soft or rough surface, it is easiest to move forward in a straight line because, if the casters sink into the soft surface, they will be less free to swivel should the user wish to change direction.
  • When moving from a smooth level surface onto a soft surface, the wheelchair will decelerate, so it may be necessary to slow down (or pop the casters, if in a manual wheelchair) when approaching such a transition.
  • To minimize rolling resistance, reducing the weight on the casters and increasing the weight on the rear wheels is a helpful strategy.
  • If one drive wheel is spinning, the wheelchair user should shift his/her weight in the direction of the slipping wheel to increase the traction.
  • The forward approach to negotiating soft surfaces is preferred because the wheelchair user can see where he/she is going.
  • The wheelchair user should use long slow strokes to keep the wheels from slipping in loose surfaces.
  • Because there is more rolling resistance on soft surfaces, more force is required by the wheelchair user. 
  • Leaning forward slightly may help the wheelchair user to apply more force to the hand-rims and to prevent the additional force from causing a rear tip. However, keeping as much weight as possible on the rear wheels (e.g. byleaning backwardslightly) will improve traction and keep the front wheels from digging into the soft surface. The wheelchair user should experiment with the extent of trunk lean to find the optimum (the “sweet spot” between too much and too little).As a learning exercise, the wheelchair user should try the skill while leaning forward and backward to different extents, to find the optimum position for him/her.
  • Transient caster popsare a good option, lifting the casters off the surface during each push, but letting them touch the surface as the hands recover for the next push. During a caster pop, the longer the hands remain on the hand-rims, the farther forward the wheelchair will move with the casters off the surface. This can be thought of as analogous to taking a series of walking “steps” across the surface; a few long steps are preferable to many short steps.

Progression:[edit | edit source]

  • For wheelchair users who are unfamiliar with caster pops, it can be a useful exercise to practice such pops on a smooth firm surface. The emphasis is on pushing the hand-rims forward but more forcefully than to simply roll forward but less forcefully than is needed to achieve a full wheelie position.
  • For a learner who is having difficulty applying enough force, the trainer can hold out his/her palm and ask the learner to use his/her own hand first to simply push against the trainer’s palm (to illustrate the amount and timing of the force needed to roll forward) and then to slap the trainer’s palm (to illustrate the amount and timing of the force needed to pop the casters off the surface).

Variations: [edit | edit source]

  • It may be easier to lead with the rear wheels (i.e. in the backward direction). The casters will trail backward and the resulting longer wheelbase may help as well because the casters will be farther from the center of gravity.
  • A variety of surfaces (e.g. sand, thick carpet, foam,a gym mat, gravel) provide similar, but not identical, experiences. 
  • See wheelie variation later.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Wheelchair Skills Program. Roll Forward 1. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9YX5LrI21o[last accessed 30/07/18]
  2. Wheelchair Skills Program. Roll Forward 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjLZt5xYHek[last accessed 30/07/18]
  3. Wheelchair Skills Program. Roll Backward. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msX2GVaNYL0[last accessed 30/07/18]
  4. Wheelchair Skills Program. Roll Forward 3 - On Snow. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhwne0BsRus [last accessed 30/07/18]