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Adaptive cycling and safe infrastructure can be tools to help overcome disability

If you are nearsighted and live in a place where eyeglasses are easy to find, it is not a big problem. If you cannot get glasses where you live, being nearsighted becomes a disability. Disabilities are in large part a social construct, and Elly Blue’s most recent column for Grist looks at ability and the role bicycles and safe streets can play in helping ease some challenges people face in our cities today.

For many people with disabilities, cars don’t just symbolize independence and freedom, they make those things possible. But this isn’t universally true, and it isn’t always so simple.

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[T]ransportation options, or lack of them, play a major role in shaping what is a disability and what isn’t. If you live in a neighborhood without stores or sidewalks or decent places to walk and you have bad knees, access to a car can indeed be a game changer. But for some people, a bicycle can be the factor that makes life manageable.

Clearly, people face a very wide variety of challenges and not all of them will be solved by curb cutouts and ramps. But when complete street advocates talk about streets designed for all road users or when the city goes to implement roadway or urban design changes, the goal of providing a more flexible city that meets the needs of people old, young and with unique challenges should be a top priority.

People who ride often would likely list “freedom” as one of the reasons they choose to get around by bicycle. Bicycles can provide the same level of liberation, if not more, for many people with disabilities of all kinds. Elly tells a couple people’s stories in her column, and several readers share their own wonderful stories in the story’s comments.

Carrie Brewer, a deaf woman who has cycled in Portland for years, is making patches for deaf people to display while cycling so other people riding bikes are aware that they cannot hear bicycle bells or vocal warnings. For Brewer, an ongoing challenge is simply finding a cycling workshop or clinic that provides an interpreter.

Tandem cycling is a great opportunity for many people to get outside, get exercise and get where they’re going. Eric Shalit at Tubulocity wrote a wonderful story last fall about piloting a tandem bicycle at a deaf blind retreat.

When riding down the Burke-Gilman Trail near the UW earlier this week, I noticed a sudden influx of recumbent tricycles on the trail. Then there was someone booking it on a super fast hand-powered trike. When I turned a corner, there was a parking lot full of people riding all sorts of adaptive cycles, from a side-by-side bicycle to a variety of hand-cranked cycles.

I had stumbled on an adaptive cycling event put on by Outdoors for All and the UW. Outdoors for All has a variety of adaptive cycling opportunities for anyone interested in exploring other ways to cycle. They even have an adaptive cycling team and have had participants in the Seattle to Portland ride for several years.

From Outdoors for All:

Enjoy a ride using your own cycle or ride one of our bikes, adaptive cycles or tandems. Outdoors for All has over 50 adaptive cycles in its fleet. Adaptive aspects include:

  • Handcycles for individuals with no or limited leg movement
  • Three and four wheel cycles for those who need more stability
  • Children’s hand and foot powered cycles
  • Tandem cycles for individuals who want a guide while riding
  • Hand and foot cranked cycles exercising your whole body
  • Standard cycles

Cyclists can ride any distance they choose during these rides, depending on their interest, strength and endurance. Rides are held at various locations. Routes are carefully chosen for their accessibility, facilities and low-to-no motorized traffic. Enjoy beautiful Northwest scenery while riding with Outdoors for All.

Of course bicycle riding will not be a solution for everyone’s unique challenges, but it can be a life changer for many people. Bicycle advocacy efforts can sometimes come off as ableist. After all, safe bicycle infrastructure only helps those who are able to ride a bicycle, right?

Well, as cities with truly safe bicycle infrastructure find, the safer the streets become, the more people suddenly find themselves able to ride. The goal of designing bicycle routes where anyone from ages 8-80 would feel comfortable riding could also help people who have a unique challenge that makes them wary of riding today. This is one of the goals of neighborhood greenways, for example.

The more safe infrastructure we build and the more access people have to adaptive cycling, the more people will have access to the freedom our bikeable and walkable city has to offer. Advocates should keep these goals at the forefront of our minds. After all, we are not so much working on behalf of people who already feel comfortable biking and walking in our city, but for people who, for whatever reason, do not feel like it is an option for them.

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One response to “Adaptive cycling and safe infrastructure can be tools to help overcome disability”

  1. “After all, we are not so much working on behalf of people who already feel comfortable biking and walking in our city, but for people who, for whatever reason, do not feel like it is an option for them.”
    YES! That is the key! That is what we need to build our movement around!

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