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According to the World Health Organisation, “an estimated 1.3 billion people experience significant disability. This represents 16% of the world’s population, or 1 in 6 of us.”
They also state that, “persons with disabilities find inaccessible and unaffordable transportation 15 times more difficult than for those without disabilities.”
At Discerning Cyclist, we are keen advocates of cycling for transport and riding in style. For some Disabled people like myself cycling is much easier than walking, or using public transport.
So in this article we’ll be exploring how and why cycling can play an invaluable role in empowering and enabling Disabled people to ride from A to B, whether it’s for a workout, work or wellbeing.
Can Disabled People Cycle?
It will of course depend on the nature of the disability, but with a suitable cycle and/or assistance most Disabled people can ride. However, other factors will also play a role such as local infrastructure and individual confidence levels.
Although there is a medical model of disability which is dependent on having a substantial or long-term physical or mental impairment that affects a person’s ability to do normal activities, the social model suggests that “people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference”.
This very much applies to cycling as there may be physical barriers such as frames, bollards or narrow cycle lanes but also the false societal assumption that Disabled people can’t cycle.
Benefits of Cycling for Disabled People
Again, it is important to note that disabilities vary and affect people in different ways but there are benefits that can be enjoyed by everyone.
The mental health advantages are also plentiful. Many studies like this one show that “people with disability experience loneliness, low perceived social support and social isolation at significantly higher rates than people without disability”.
Cycles vs Bikes
Using inclusive language makes sure everyone feels welcome and acknowledged. Bikes or bicycles refers to cycles with two wheels but some cycles will have three or even four wheels, or have a completely different design to the usual bike. This is why it is better and easier to use the term ‘cycles’ as this way it covers all kinds of cycles, and in so doing everyone who rides them.
You’ll notice that the term ‘bikes’ has snuck into this article though. This is because although significant progress has been made to make cycling more inclusive, sadly our search engines are lagging behind but we want to make sure the word still gets out!
You may have seen or come across this term, or perhaps ‘adapted’ cycling. Essentially this just means cycles that have been adapted for use by Disabled people. This can range from my set up which is a standard two wheeled bicycle with an electric conversion kit, through to a side by side cycle designed for two or more passengers.
Bikes for Disabled People
Just like the many different kinds of bikes, there are plenty of cycles to choose from that cater for Disabled people. We’ve listed some examples below but many of these types can be further adapted, have electric assistance added or even be created on a bespoke basis.
Able-bodied cyclists may also find they may like to use these bikes as they prefer the riding style, or features of the cycle.
Having three wheels (either two at the back and one at the front or vice versa), helps those who need support with their balance and coordination, and also people who may have upper body disabilities so they can more easily guide the handlebars without worrying about wobbling.
Designed in an upright or recumbent style, these cycles are powered by your arms rather than legs. Like trikes, they have three wheels but most of the time they have one at the front and two at the rear to make manoeuvring easier. A crank system is found in the place of handlebars and the rider uses this to cycle.
You can also get clip-on hand cycles that attach to wheelchairs. Disability cycling advocacy charity Wheels for Wellbeing have an insightful podcast called ‘My Cycle My Mobility Aid’ in which Hari talks about using a clip-on electric handcycle with her wheelchair.
Sometimes referred to as mobility scooters, these are powered bikes which feature a seat on a platform with a steering console and controls at the front. In this case, all the rider needs to do is go in the right direction so these are useful for people with limited mobility or who experience fatigue.
Lesser known mobility bikes include exciting new inventions like The Alinker. Described as a “non-motorized walking-bike without pedals”, it consists of an arched foldable frame with two front wheels, handlebars, a saddle and a smaller back wheel.
The idea behind it is to provide an active alternative for wheelchair users who are still able to move their legs, and also to allow them to interact with others at eye level.
Adding electric assistance to a tricycle gives an extra boost to those using trikes. As an example, my wonderful friend Jean who has cerebral palsy uses an electric tricycle to get around. The additional storage at the back between the wheels also allows her to transport other mobility aids that she uses when walking.
RECOMMENDED ELECTRIC TRIKE: RadTrike
A tandem is fondly referred to as a bicycle made for two. It is basically a longer standard cycle with provision for two cyclists. The first rider controls the direction and both riders are able to pedal if this is possible.
This way of riding is especially suited for those with visual impairments as a sighted pilot can control the cycle. This is also how my friend Kate does the school run with her lovely daughter who has learning disabilities so needs additional support to cycle.
Side by Side Cycles
This is also a bicycle made for two but, as the name suggests, the riders sit side by side rather than behind each other. Designs can vary with bikes either having two sets of handlebars and pedals, or one central set controlled by one rider.
Alternatively the passengers can sit side by side in a rickshaw fashion being ridden as is used by the global charity Cycling Without Age to bring cycling to the older generations.
Another form of tricycle, recumbent bikes are powered by your legs with the chainset and pedals being located close to the front wheel(s) and the handlebars on either side of the seat.
This style of cycle is helpful for people who experience issues with their back and/or balance as instead of a saddle they have a supportive seat to lean back in.
What Are Bikes for Disabled People Called?
We’ve already touched on the specific types of bikes that Disabled people can use to cycle but as with adaptive cycling, there are other terms that you may encounter.
A bike is accessible if you’re able to use it so this simply refers to the cycle that is suitable for your needs.
These are bikes and cycles that have been designed or modified for use by Disabled people. For example, Islabikes have the Joni 20 and 24 step through bikes that are for people with disproportionate dwarfism.
Bikes that are wheelchair friendly fit into this category. There are lots of different types but they either have a dedicated space to accommodate the wheelchair user and their wheelchair on the front of the bike, or they have a built-in chair at the front that is similar to a wheelchair for the user to sit in.
Where to Buy Disability Cycles
As we’ve established, cycles for Disabled people depend on individual needs but there are specialist providers.
In the UK, social enterprise Get Cycling CIC “specialises in the sale, hire and repair of inclusive cycles”. They offer a wide range of new and refurbished options as they realise that unfortunately adapted and non-standard cycles tend to be much more expensive.
Netherlands based Van Raam works with dealers across the world, including the USA, to provide bespoke cycles including side by side bikes.
There may also be the possibility to try before you buy. For example, across the UK there are many inclusive cycling centres where you can test out and experience different kinds of cycles so you get an idea of what would work best. Charity Wheels for All has helpfully created this map to find the closest one.
There are also some mainstream e-bike brands that have cycles for different needs, including Rad Power Bike’s excellent RadTrike electric tricycle.
Thanks to amazing bikes, initiatives and innovation, for many Disabled people cycling is not only possible but it also enables us to get around and enjoy that familiar sense of freedom and independence that is universal to everyone who cycles.
Regardless of our ability, we all deserve to experience the joy of cycling.