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Are Portable Wheelchair Ramps Safe?

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My elderly mom was in a wheelchair for the last few months of her life. Thankfully, my parents lived in a retirement community so their house was already prepped for wheelchair access with wide doorways and hallways. The one thing they didn’t have was a way to get in or out of the house safely with a wheelchair. Since my mom had a terminal illness, we didn’t want to install a permanent wheelchair ramp, but we worried about temporary options.

We wondered are portable wheelchair ramps safe? Portable wheelchair ramps are safe if they have:

  • non-skid surfaces
  • safety edges on both sides
  • the capacity to hold the weight you need (weight of person plus wheelchair plus caregiver pushing the wheelchair)
  • level transition plates on both ends
  • water drainage holes
  • handrails, if longer than 6 feet
  • instructions included

Seniors can use portable wheelchair ramps for access to their home, a vehicle, and to get into and out of places that don’t have ADA equipment (such as a friend’s home). They are also great for someone who needs to get over low stoops, a small set of stairs, or raised landings while using a wheelchair.

Portable ramps come in various designs, but they really fit into just two categories:

  • A single platform ramp
  • Ramps that consists of two separate “channels” or tracks that you use side by side (in other words, each side of the wheelchair rides on a different ramp).

Pros And Cons Of Portable Wheelchair Ramps

Depending on the model, there are some really good things about portable wheelchair ramps – and some not so good things to watch out for.

Pros

  • Temporary ramps are compact and lightweight so they can be used in homes, in vehicles, and to get over curbs or high thresholds.
  • Some designs have parts that “telescope” into each other so the ramp takes up less room and can be used in tighter spaces.
  • Can be used indoors or outside.
  • Some types come with built-in handles and locking mechanisms so you can fold them up and easily move them. A negative to these locks and handles is that caregivers may bump into them while assisting someone on the ramp.
  • Usually no installation is required for portable ramps that can be taken in a vehicle, although there are temporary ramps that can not be moved and this kind must be fastened down for safety.

Cons

  • Using a channel-type of ramp means a caregiver must set up and take down two ramps. Also, the caregiver has to physically walk between the tracks (channels) and must be able to control the wheelchair from shoulder height when it is at the top of the ramp (for example, when loading it into a vehicle).
  • Often, the price of the product tells you the quality of the ramp. Lower priced models are more likely to have sharp edges, a poorer quality of welding, or come without warnings or instructions for use (which are very important for safety!).
  • Some ramps are too heavy for a frail, older person to lift from ground level.
  • In general, portable ramps don’t come with handrails, even though ADA guidelines recommend them if a ramp is longer than 6 feet.
  • Narrow models may make it difficult to maneuver a wheelchair up the ramp without getting the wheels stuck. This is especially problematic with powered wheelchairs. If the wheel of a motorized wheelchair gets caught on the edge of a ramp, the other wheels still have power. If someone tries to dislodge the stuck wheel by applying more power, it could cause the chair to fall from the ramp.
  • Many portable wheelchair ramps for thresholds must be fastened in place with screws to keep them stable. This means drilling into your home’s door sill or into concrete if it is being used outside. There are some ramps that don’t require being fastened to anything, though. Before purchasing, check to be sure if the ramp you order will need to be tightened down.
  • Channel/track ramps are better for traditional wheelchairs, but not for scooters or power chairs. Many models cannot hold the weight of a power chair, much less one that is occupied. Additionally, the safety edges on a channel ramp need to be short enough (have enough clearance) that a power chair can roll above the edges and not get stuck.

If you would like to read more about the pluses and minuses of a British study that was done on portable wheelchairs, click here.

8 Things To Look For In Portable Wheelchair Ramps

Typically these ramps are for use with either a powered wheelchair or one that is pushed by a caregiver or by the user themselves. People with scooters or walkers use temporary ramps, too. A portable wheelchair ramp needs to be functional, but it should also be designed with the user’s optimum safety in mind.

“Although wheelchair ramps are available in a wide range of designs and configurations, we found that no single ramp design successfully met the needs of all wheelchair users or their caregivers.”  – Storr, et al., study (2004), Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development

Before you purchase a portable wheelchair ramp, be sure the following features are included in the model you intend to buy:

Non-skid Surfaces

A nice thing about portable wheelchair ramps is that they can be used indoors or outside. For either use, you’ll want to be sure the ramp has a non-skid surface. This can include a rubber coating or a coating of some other non-slip material. If it doesn’t have this coating, then it should have raised strips or raised “buttons” to help with traction.

If you purchase (or have purchased) a temporary wheelchair ramp that does not have a non-skid surface, you can apply no-slip strips to the ramp.

Safety Edges/Curbs

All ramps should have safety edges (also called “curbs” or containment edges). The safety edges line the sides of the ramp to keep a wheelchair from running off the incline. Safety edges are meant for longer ramps – short threshold-type ramps don’t usually require them.

Weight Capacity

Many portable wheelchair ramp models can support between 600 and 800 pounds, and some can hold up to 850 – 900 pounds. This may sound like a lot of weight, but be sure the one you buy is right for your senior loved one:

  • First, combine the weight of the wheelchair or scooter plus the weight of the person using it.
  • To that number, add a caregiver’s approximate weight if they will also be standing on the ramp, escorting the user up or down the incline.

A powered wheelchair weighs more than one without a motor, but having a powered chair also doesn’t mean the user will be on the ramp by themselves. This is why you need to think about the caregiver’s weight, too – they may be following close behind, guiding the wheelchair user.

Transition Plates

Transition plates are the “landings” that are on the bottom of a ramp. They are the smooth areas that let a wheelchair or scooter transition from the incline of the ramp onto level ground.

The best type of transition plate is one that self-adjusts. This means it “floats” and can accommodate for different ramp angles. A self-adjusting transition plate also provides stability on sloping or uneven ground.

Drainage Holes

If your senior loved one’s ramp will be used outside, it needs to have drainage holes. It should also be made of a rust-resistant material like aluminum.

Drainage holes prevent water and snow from collecting on the ramp’s surface. This is important for reducing the chances of a caregiver or someone else slipping and falling while walking on the ramp.

Handrails

There are heavy temporary ramps available that come with handrails. These usually need to be delivered and installed and aren’t the kind that you can take with you when you go somewhere.

For the ramps that are totally portable (you can fold them up and take them in a vehicle), I couldn’t find any that came with handrails.

On the one hand, I’m surprised, because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines say that any ramp over 6 feet long should have handrails and many transportable ramps are longer than that. On the other hand, my guess as to why they don’t come on the uber-portable models is that handrails would get in the way of folding up and storing these ramps.

So, why do you need a handrail anyhow? Well, clearly they are a good idea to keep people from falling off the ramp. This goes for both the person in the wheelchair and any caregiver who might be assisting them. Let’s say a caregiver loses their grip on an occupied wheelchair. If the ramp has handrails, the person using the wheelchair may be able to stop themselves before they roll too far.

Also, some people use handrails for leverage to pull themselves up the ramp or to brace themselves from going down the ramp too fast.

User Guides/Instructions

This sounds like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised by how many portable wheelchair ramps come without a user guide. You need to have instructions! Putting the ramp into place and using it isn’t just a matter of leaning it against some steps and rolling down it.

In fact, in the results of a British study done by Storr, et al., it was noted that, “Although one might assume that ramps are relatively simple devices, which can be used without instructions, our experience indicates that this is not the case, because a number of participants tried to use the ramps incorrectly.”

Length Of The Ramp

For any type of wheelchair ramp, you need to have a gentle slope. The slope of the ramp is dictated by its length – the higher the rise, the longer the ramp should be.

A short ramp that is used with a higher vertical rise is dangerous. The ADA guidelines say, “The least possible slope shall be used for any ramp.” They state that a wheelchair ramp (portable or permanent) should never be higher than 30 inches.

If your senior loved one is using a portable ramp at home, they probably don’t need to meet the ADA specifications, but why would you want them to skimp on safety? It’s good to use the ADA guidelines for reference.

If someone is using a ramp while sitting in the wheelchair, ADA Ramp Specifications require a 1:12 ramp slope ratio. This means that for every 1 inch of vertical rise (height the top of the ramp will be at), they need at least 1 foot (12 inches) of ramp length. So, a 3-inch rise (for example, a curb) requires a 3-foot long ramp.

TIP #1: All wheelchairs and scooters should come with an owner’s guide. Refer to this guide to determine the correct slope for your loved one’s particular equipment.

TIP #2: In order to make it super easy for you to figure out the length of ramp your parent needs, try using the EZ Access Incline Chart from The Wright Stuff.

Types Of Portable Wheelchair Ramps

As I mentioned before, portable wheelchair ramps basically come in two versions: a single platform and a double-track version. There are also threshold ramps for use inside the home.

One thing to consider before buying a temporary ramp is whether it will need to be fastened down. Some ramps, like many threshold ramps, need to be fixed to something to keep them from moving when a wheelchair rolls over them.

If this is a problem, look for a model that sits against the door sill, like some of the rubber threshold models. These are great for use with sliding doors and can be trimmed to fit your needs.

Threshold Ramps

EZ-Access Transitions Angled 24 inch Entry RampA nice example of a threshold ramp is the EZ Access 24 Inch Transitions Angled Ramp. It has a weight capacity of 700 pounds. This ramp can be used either free-standing or attached. If you attach it, the ramp has pre-drilled holes and can be fastened to either wood or concrete.

The ramp height is adjustable via swivel feet underneath. It comes with two different sized pairs of feet so you can accommodate the ramp to different thresholds. Just turn the feet to raise or lower the height of the ramp. Depending on your needs, the ramp can be raised from it’s lowest height (1 5/8 inches) up to 4 3/8 inches high.

Also, since this particular model is angled, it can be used on different angles of thresholds. This is is good feature to have if a senior will be rolling over uneven surfaces.

Another good thing about this ramp is that it works with a door that swings out. In fact, one reviewer said that they thought one of the best features of the product was that it allowed for a storm door on the outside of the front door.

Single Platform Ramps

EZ - Access 8 ft Suitcase Ramp Signature SS8Single platform ramps are the most stable of the portable wheelchair ramps. They are flat all the way across to the safety edges. There are many models that are designed to be folded up when you want to take them with you.

For example, the EZ Access 8 Ft Suitcase Ramp is a portable ramp that folds up (like a suitcase!) and can be carried using a non-breakable handle. It comes in two pieces that combine to make one, wide ramp. Caregivers or a senior user have plenty of maneuvering room for wheelchairs.

Pros – The ramp supports up to 800 pounds of weight, making it a good choice for powered wheelchairs, scooters, and regular wheelchairs. It also has a self-adjusting transition plate, which is great for uneven terrain.

Cons – Before buying a single platform ramp:

  • Check that the caregiver can lift the weight of the ramp. While this ramp can be separated into two pieces so it is lighter to carry or store (it weighs 29 pounds), these ramps typically weigh between 40 and 50 pounds.
  • Ensure the ramp length will fit in your vehicle or the caregiver’s vehicle if you intend to carry it with you. The same goes for any storage place in the senior’s home. These ramps fold down the center only. An 8-foot long ramp will still be 8 feet long after it is folded up for transport – it just won’t be as wide as it is when in use.

Channel Ramps (Track Ramps)

As the name implies, channel ramps or track ramps are basically two ramps that fit side by side. But it doesn’t make a wide, flat platform – instead this arrangement makes two tracks for the wheels of a scooter or wheelchair.

Pros – People like these ramps because they are durable and portable. You don’t have to fasten them down and they can be used to access a vehicle, as well as in a home. Some models fold up so the senior can take the ramp with them for errands, events, and so on. For elders or a caregiver who may be in charge of moving the ramp for travel, the double-track type is lighter to carry because you can move each track separately (they weigh about 6 -7 pounds each).

Duro-Med Telescoping 5 Foot Wheelchair RampsOne kind of channel ramp is a telescoping wheelchair ramp. This style can extend to different lengths (the one in the image extends from 3-5 feet), so they get points for being versatile.

Channel ramps also fold up much more compactly than a single platform ramp (they fold down to about the length of a powered wheelchair).

Cons – Frankly, I’m not very excited about channel ramps. I don’t think they are as safe or as user-friendly as a single platform ramp, particularly if the senior is driving their own powered wheelchair.

What’s the problem, you ask?

  • Before using, the ramps need to be set exactly the correct distance apart because the tracks are very narrow.
  • This type of ramp will not work with a wheelchair that has offset wheels (meaning the back wheels extend out wider than the front wheels).
  • The inner tracks are only 4 inches wide. An elderly user had better have very good control of their power wheelchair if they are going to drive it up or down these ramps.

One reviewer commented that, in his experience, the tracks on this type of ramp need to be another inch or two wider. He mentioned that he had to be careful to keep the wheels lined up so they didn’t catch on the safety edges when he used it. He also considered his channel ramp to be “tricky” to go up, but said it was “borderline dangerous” to come it without assistance because it was too easy for the wheels to get caught in the tracks.

Storr study shows wheelchair stuck in channel ramp
Image courtesy of Storr, et al. 2008 study

Remember that I mentioned this problem at the beginning of this article?

The British study I referenced found that people who used powered wheelchairs with channel ramps were vulnerable to having the wheels catch in the tracks and getting stuck.

When they tried to dislodge the wheelchair by using the power (which is a natural reaction), “the torque from the rear wheels caused the caused the ramp to move away from the vehicle and fall to the floor.” (See image from this study.)

The researchers also noted, “The form and surface of the gutters also caused difficulties when the channel ramps (Ramps 1-6) were used because these factors prevented the wheelchair from moving freely unless the footplates were raised to a level that was unsuitable for the leg length of the anthropometric dummy.”

TIP: If you purchase a channel ramp for an elderly loved one, be sure they understand these drawbacks so they won’t try to use the ramp alone. As the reviewer in the quote said, they can be dangerous to use without assistance.

Optional: Top Lip Extension (TLE)

EZ-Access Ramp Top Lip ExtensionsTop lip extensions (TLEs) are optional pieces of equipment that connect to the top end of the ramp so it can extend further into a vehicle. These extenders help a lot when you are dealing with SUVs or minivans that have extended bumpers.

Without an extension, the ramp basically sits on the vehicle’s bumper. But by attaching a top lip extension to the ramp, you add another 6 inches to the end of the ramp so it extends beyond the bumper and into the cargo area of a minivan or SUV.  A half foot may not seem like much, but it makes it significantly safer and easier for owners or caregivers to move a powered wheelchair in or out of a vehicle.

The EZ Access Top Lip Extender can also be used on a door threshold and can be added or removed from a ramp as needed.

Can You Rent Portable Wheelchair Ramps?

Yes, there are companies out there who will allow you to rent a portable wheelchair ramp. They will generally provide delivery and setup, then will take it away when you no longer need it.

Why would a senior need to rent a wheelchair ramp? Rentals may be right for:

  • A need of less than six months
  • Recovering from surgery
  • Hospice or terminal illnesses
  • A short-term house guest who requires a ramp
  • An event like a wedding or graduation
  • A senior who is aging in place in a rental home. A good example of this is my former mother-in-law who has rented one side of a duplex for years. This sweet lady recently fell and broke a bone in her thigh, resulting in a lengthy recovery at an in-patient rehab facility. When she came home, her house wasn’t handicap-equipped and she couldn’t get up the steps to get into her place. Renting a temporary ramp took care of the problem and after she recovered, she wasn’t saddled with a ramp she longer needed.

If you need to rent a portable wheelchair ramp, usually you’ll need to give the company some lead time. Call them to reserve the ramp and arrange for delivery and installation well before you need it. That said, many companies can make quick arrangements in the event of an urgent, unforeseen need.

As far as cost, HomeAdvisor reports that the 2019 prices for portable wheelchair ramp rentals usually runs “between $100 and $275 per month. Initial installation will be a one-time charge of $300 – $800. The cost of rental and installation will depend on the specific configuration needed. Typically, the longer the ramp, the higher the rates.”

TIP: One thing to ask is if the company you rent from will apply any rental amounts paid toward the purchase of the ramp, should you find that you need it permanently. As an example, AmRamp is a company that will apply 75 percent of your rental fee towards the purchase price if you end up needing to keep a ramp. They will also contract with local installers for delivery and installation – one stop shopping!

Related Questions

Will Medicare cover a wheelchair lift? Medicare does not cover residential wheelchair lifts. And because Medicare doesn’t cover them, Medigap insurance (Medicare supplemental insurance) won’t cover a lift either. However, your state Medicaid program may cover a home wheelchair lift and the VA may cover them for veterans.

Does Medicare pay for wheelchair repairs? If the wheelchair is damaged during a disaster or emergency, Medicare may pay for its repair or replacement in certain cases. It likely also covers the cost of a rental while the wheelchair is being fixed. Call your Medicare Advantage Plan directly or 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to be sure.


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