Education in Motion / Clinical Corner Archive / May 2013 / Specialty Controls for Power Wheelchairs

Specialty Controls for Power Wheelchairs


Hello all!

Recently, my colleague, Ron Claughton, Account Manager with Sunrise Medical, and I presented on specialty controls at the Canadian Seating and Mobility Conference (CSMC) in Toronto. Not only did we discuss various specialty control options, but we also demonstrated the use of specialty controls both live and through videos. Therapists and vendors were given the opportunity to drive power wheelchairs using alternate input devices. Hands on is a great way to learn, but of course, not everyone is able to attend CSMC, so I thought I would share some information on specialty controls in this month’s blog article.

Joystick Considerations

While a joystick is the most commonly used input device to operate a power wheelchair, not everyone has the physical ability to operate a wheelchair using a joystick and for these people specialty controls, or alternative input devices, are required. Just remember to ensure that it is not the programming of the power wheelchair that is limiting the person’s ability to drive a power wheelchair with a standard joystick gimble! (For more on the common adjustments that can be made to the programming of a power wheelchair, please refer to my article on Power Programming Basics). Also consider the handle on the joystick gimble. Would a ball, knob or a goal-post handle, rather than a typical stick handle, enable the person to drive a power wheelchair safely and effectively? In addition, consider the position of the joystick. Joysticks can be mounted to the right, to the left, or anywhere in between! Would a midline mount of a standard joystick enable independent power mobility? Of course, changing the orientation of the joystick from a standard orientation to a mid-line mount may require programming changes for the active orientation of the joystick.

Proportional Input Devices

A standard joystick is an example of a proportional input device. This means that the amount of deflection on the joystick gimble will correspond with a given rate of movement of the wheelchair, similar to how a gas pedal on a car works. Thus, the further the joystick is pushed out of the neutral position in any direction, the faster the wheelchair will go. Alternative joysticks, which require very little force or deflection for activation, are available. These include the MicroPilot and Touch Drive by Switch-It, Inc. and the Proportional Mini and Micro Mini Joysticks by ASL, Inc.

Non-proportional Input Devices

A switch is an example of a non-proportional drive control. This means that the switch is either “on” or “off”, similar to how a light switch works. Each switch is pre-programmed for one direction and speed. Thus, activating the switch activates the movement of the wheelchair for a set speed and direction. Other examples of non-proportional drive controls include sip and puff and head array with switch control. (A proportional head control also is available.)

Switches can be either mechanical or electronic. Mechanical switches require a depression of the switch to activate. There are numerous choices available in mechanical switches, ranging in size and amount of force required to operate the switch. In comparison, electronic switches, such as Fibre Optic Switches (Switch-It, Inc), do not require direct touch to operate. Depending upon the programming, the fibre optic switch may be activated when an object either is detected within the adjusted range or moves from the adjusted range.

Assessment and Trial

Deciding upon what is the most ideal input device for a power wheelchair user starts with the assessment of the individual. Part of that assessment will include evaluation of the access point, or the part of the body that will be used to control the wheelchair. The access point is the point on the body for which the person can move reliably in two directions. Potential access points include the head, cheek, temporal area (with caution), mouth, chin, finger, thumb, elbow, knee, foot, and toes. Whether a proportional or non-proportional input device is chosen for an individual depends on the type with which the person has the most success. Training with, and trial of, equipment is the key to ensuring proper prescription of a specialty control. What is also important is the postural stability of the individual in the wheelchair to ensure consistent access to the specialty control. A person driving a wheelchair with a specialty control must always be able to reach the input device to operate the power wheelchair.

Expandable Electronics

I have mentioned in a previous article, and I believe it bears repeating, that the use of specialty controls requires expandable electronics on the power wheelchair. If the use of specialty controls may be required for a person during the life of the power wheelchair, expandable electronics should be selected at the time of the initial wheelchair prescription to allow for the anticipated use of a specialty control. (For more information on power wheelchair electronics, please refer to my article on De-mystifying Power Wheelchairs – Selecting Electronics that can be found here.)

As therapists, we can facilitate independent mobility for individuals through thoughtful prescription of a specialty control input device. As my education counterparts at Sunrise Training and Education Programs (STEPS) in the U.S. say, Mobility is POWERful!


  1. Arva, J., Furumasu, J., Harris, M., Kermoian, R., Lange, M., McCarthy, E., Pinkerton, H., Plummer, T., Roos, J., & Rosen, L. (2009) RESNA Position on the Application of Power Wheelchairs for Pediatric Users. Assistive Technology. 21, 218-226
  2. Cook, A., Polgar, J. (2007). Cook and Hussey’s Assistive Technologies: Principles and Practice 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Mosby
  3. Cook, A., Plogar, J. (2012) Essentials for Assistive Technologies. Philadelphia: Mosby.
  4. Cooper, R. (1998). Wheelchair Selection and Configuration. New York: Demos Medical Publishing.
  5. Massengale, S., Folden, D., McConnell, P., Stratton, L., & Whitehead, V. (2005) Effect of Visual Perception, Visual Function, Cognition, and Personality on Power Wheelchair Use in Adults. Assistive Technology, 17, 108-121.

DISCLAIMER: FOR PROFESSIONAL USE ONLY. THIS WEBSITE (AND THE DOCUMENTS REFERENCED HEREIN) DO NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Sunrise Medical (CA) LLC ("Sunrise") does not provide clinician services. The information contained on this website (and the documents referenced herein), including, but not limited to, the text, graphics, images, and descriptions, are for informational purposes only and should be utilized as a general resource for clinicians and suppliers to then use clinical reasoning skills to determine optimal seating and mobility solutions for individual patients. No material on this website (or any document referenced herein) is intended to be used as (or a substitute for) professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard your professional medical training when providing medical advice or treatment because of something you have read on this website (or any document referenced herein). Clinicians should review this (and any other materials) carefully and confirm information contained herein with other sources. Reliance on this website (and the information contained herein) is solely at your own risk.