Accessibility statement

A historical sociology of the wheelchair

Part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s research programme on Innovations in Health Technologies, in cooperation and collaboration with the Medical Research Council



For millions of disabled people the most important technological innovation of the 20th century was the modern wheelchair. The bath chair, or “invalid chair” that dominated the late 19th century was a heavy, cumbersome machine designed to be pushed by an attendant rather than controlled by the occupant. The idea that a wheelchair user could be active was never considered.

Since then, the wheelchair has developed into a powerful tool and those that dominated at the end of the 20th century were built with the occupant in mind. Indeed, the design emphasis and marketing strategies of the modern wheelchair were centred on the machine’s capacity to deliver greater independence for the user. This is a significant change. In parallel, the move towards the greater social inclusion of disabled people, an outcome of their struggles for independence, changed both the meaning of disability and the personal consequences on individual lives of being a disabled person. Yet, there is little social or historical analysis that details the relations between these currents of social and technological change. Our research will fill this gap.

Research Design

Our history will be built upon a combination of in-depth interviews and archival research conducted in both the UK and the US. Interviews will be conducted with around 100 key participants who have played an important role in the development of the wheelchair, or who are particularly well-placed observers of that development. Archival sources will come from rehabilitation units, disability organisations, medical and governmental libraries and Patent Offices. Technical-scientific publications, such as journals, conference proceedings and company reports, along with disability groups’ publications, will also provide a rich source of data that will allow us to map the generation, growth and changing nature of knowledge, practices and chart the changing relations between wheelchair users and other actors.


Projected outcomes

Policy and academic implications

Our research will generate new theoretical ideas about the relationships between technology and disability; and produce a valuable analysis of the little explored field of technologies for disabled people. In line with the objectives of the Innovations in Health Technologies research programme, this research will also enable us to: (i) assess the distribution and re-distribution of power between “experts,” professionals, amateurs and lay peoples through an exploration of the changing roles of each in the evolution of the wheelchair; (ii) examine the ways the wheelchair has constructed and transformed concepts of self, identity and the meaning of disability; and (iii) investigate how changes in wheelchair design have reflected and/or contributed to changing patterns of social exclusion and inclusion. Thus, the inquiry will open the way for a reappraisal of some fundamental concepts, namely: the relationship between technology and independence, the complex relations between the creators and users of technologies, and the impact of wider socio-cultural factors on the development and acceptance of technologies. At a policy level, this work will inform those who create and provide wheelchairs of the implications of this product and thus be more receptive to the complexities of users relations with their wheelchairs.

Team and funding


  • Dr Brian Woods. SATSU, Department of Sociology, University of York
  • Dr Nick Watson. Nursing Studies, University of Edinburgh
  • Prof Donald MacKenzie. Department of Sociology, University of Edinburgh.


  • Dr Brian Woods SATSU, Department of Sociology, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD. Tel: 01904 433060 Email:
  • Dr Nick Watson Department of Nursing Studies, University of Edinburgh, 40 George Square, EH8 9LL. Tel: 0131 650 3895 Email:

Duration of Research

  • January 2001 – December 2003.