How to Open and Close a Wheelchair

How do you open and close a wheelchair? One of the toughest things to do in the hospital or on the rehab floor of a hospital is to open or close your wheelchair, especially if you do not have much experience with wheelchairs. Guess what? Your physical therapist is an excellent resource to contact if you need help opening and closing your wheelchair or transfer chair.

Woman loading a wheelchair into a car.
Ruth Jenkinson / Getty Images

A wheelchair is a device used by people who are unable to walk due to injury or illness. If you have had a spinal cord injury or a stroke, you may have paralysis or weakness and need a wheelchair to help you move about the community. Surgery to your foot or knee or a fracture to your leg may also require the use of a wheelchair.

Types of Wheelchairs

A wheelchair is comprised of a seat with four wheels attached. The wheels towards the back are usually bigger and have rims that you can use to push the chair forward or backward and to turn. There are many types of wheelchairs. Electrical power wheelchairs are ones that you can propel with a motor. You use a joystick or other control device to help steer, start, and stop the chair. These types of wheelchairs are usually very heavy and bulky due to the battery pack that powers the wheelchair.

A manual wheelchair is one that you push using your arms. Another person can also help push the wheelchair with handles on the back of the chair. Many manual wheelchairs are able to be folded to make them easy to transport and store.

There are many moving parts on the wheelchair, so folding and unfolding the wheelchair can be challenging. By following these basic instructions, folding and unfolding a wheelchair will be a breeze.

Keep in mind that not all wheelchairs are alike and that the instructions below should be useful for most manual folding wheelchairs. Your wheelchair may be different, so if you are having a hard time folding or unfolding it, please consult your healthcare provider or local physical therapist for help.

Opening and Closing a Wheelchair

To open or unfold the wheelchair:

  1. Place your wheelchair on a solid even surface.
  2. Make sure the brakes are locked. You do not want your wheelchair rolling away from you as you try to open it up. Usually, there are small levers in front of each rear wheel that engage to lock the wheels.
  3. Grab the seat of the wheelchair with one hand in the front and one in the back.
  4. Slowly push the seat down in the middle of the seat. The sides and wheels of the wheelchair should slide away from one another.
  5. Push all the way down until the seat is fully opened.
  6. Your wheelchair is now ready for use. Be sure the brakes are locked before attempting to sit in your wheelchair.

To close or fold the wheelchair:

  1. Make sure the brakes are applied to the wheelchair. 
  2. Stand in front of the wheelchair and grab the seat of the chair with one hand in the front and one hand in the back.
  3. Slowly lift up on the seat. The seat should fold in half and the wheels should move closer together.
  4. Fully raise the seat in the middle, and the wheelchair should be folded up and ready to transport or store.

If you have any questions about opening or closing your wheelchair, you may want to check in with your local physical therapist who can help you.

A Word From Verywell

With so many unfamiliar parts, a manual folding wheelchair can seem like a difficult assistive device to fold and unfold. It's natural to feel a little anxious about opening and closing a wheelchair, especially if you have limited experience doing so. By following these instructions, you can be sure to safely and effectively fold a wheelchair for storage or transport.

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.