The first depictions of wheelchairs come from China, around 525 CE. They are now associated with assisting the mobility of disabled, sick or elderly people. However, in the past wheelchairs were fashionable accessories used by non-disabled people too. The Bath chair was popular with visitors recuperating at spas during the 1800s.
Throughout the 1800s wheelchairs were made more comfortable. Rubber tyres and adjustable seats were fitted. However, they were passive machines made to be pushed around rather than self-propelled, and remained bulky and awkward to transport. In 1932, American designers Everest and Jennings developed the tubular steel wheelchair. It folded so it could be carried by car, and the tubular frame was lighter and more convenient.
Wheelchairs became associated with disability after soldiers wounded in the First and Second World Wars were seen in them. Wheelchair users were often stigmatised, and considered unable to care for themselves or contribute to society. Ludwig Guttman introduced wheelchair sports as rehabilitative therapy for soldiers with spinal injuries during the Second World War. His efforts grew into the modern Paralympics.
Active wheelchair use demanded lighter and more versatile wheelchairs. Powered wheelchairs made users even more independently mobile - the first was built in Britain in 1916. ‘Add on’ power units were developed in the 1960s for folding wheelchairs. Powered chairs became more widely used after more affordable and better ones arrived in the 1980s.
During the 20th century disability activists campaigned against discrimination. Many countries have passed legislation aiming to ensure equal access to buildings and public spaces.
D Fleischer and Zames (eds), The disability rights movement: from charity to confrontation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).
L Guttmann, Textbook of Sport for the Disabled (Aylesbury: HM+M, 1976)
H Kamenetz, ‘A brief history of the wheelchair’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied sciences, 24 (1969), pp 205-210
G Pullin, Design Meets Disability (Massachusetts: MIT Press, c2009.)
J Scruton, Stoke Mandeville: Road to the Paralympics (Aylesbury: The Peterhouse Press, 1998)