There’s no stopping these cycling kids
In its 14th year, Cycle Without Limits continues to help children with disabilities learn to ride
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By Mira Brody  January 24, 2014 12:00 am

Most every person has the same childhood memory: that second filled with anticipation, fear and freedom when your parent let go of your bike for the first time without training wheels and you flew down the sidewalk, nothing between you and the concrete except your own determination.

For children with disabilities, however, learning to ride a bike can be a much more challenging feat, which is why Sonoma State Kinesiology Professor Elaine McHugh started Cycle Without Limits nearly 14 years ago, a camp where kids learn to ride with the aid of a large support group and specialty bicycles that implement pneumatic technology.


It’s about inclusion

“It’s a really huge thing, because learning to ride a bike is such a rite of passage, but these kids don’t learn the same way,” says McHugh. “They feel left out. So to be able to ride a two-wheeler puts them up on an equal bar as their peers. It’s really about inclusion.”

The week-long bike camp, which occurs twice a year, is inviting to disabilities of many ranges, including Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, Turner Syndrome, autism, and many more. Sometimes a student is just highly fearful of misbalance and is in need of assistance when eliminating the use of training wheels.

The bikes themselves do have training wheels, but the “jolt” many children experience during their time using them is eliminated through a pneumatic system, or air pressure tubes, to stabilize the three back wheels at all times, eliminating that sense of fear during the learning process.

“All three wheels are always in control and always touching the ground,” explains Walt Custer, who maintains the bikes for the camp and also is a part of the program Trips for Kids situated in Marin. He works closely with Dennis Blong, the engineer behind this life-changing contraption. The aeropneumatic attachments are made from recycled materials and also include a handle so that the camp mentors can always guide their students.


Bigger than children, parents

“It’s not just for the kids,” says Ann Donaca-Sullivan, who is visiting with her family from Portland, Ore. “It’s for the sponsors and volunteers. We are  all understanding why inclusion is important and that building of compassion spreads to other people. It’s a much bigger picture than just parents with children with disabilities.” 

Donaca-Sullivan is planning to lease the bikes for her own Cycle Without Limits program up north, which already has a waiting list. 

Although Cody, her 19-year-old with Down Syndrome, learned to ride a bike at 10, she hopes to spread the word about these amazing bikes so they are presented as a solution to more families who deal with developmental setbacks.

“As a parent, you think ‘are there some things my kids will never get to do?’ but then with technology like this, our kids can now learn to ride bikes. They’re out in the world, and they are included.”

The program began when McHugh met an engineering professor from the University of Illinois who was interested in teaching kids how to ride regardless of learning ability. The idea is to allow more gradual progression; the wheels can be adjusted to skill level and eventually removed once the child is comfortable riding without them.

Diane Hobaugh, who works with the Down Syndrome Association of the North Bay, explains that this camp is not only for the kids, but also for creating a sense of community for those dealing with similar situations.

“I put my daughter in this program as a parent to see how we can explore possibilities with this non-profit to work with our non-profit,” she says, watching her own 11-year-old, Hannah, dance in the center of the gymnasium with Danaca-Sullivan’s daughter while their fellow classmates bike circles around them. She attributes the triumphs of this camp to the layered learning structure.


Incentives and motivation

“There are layers of motivation and incentives here,” Hobaugh says. “They can be successful; they just need our support in order to be successful.”

Most of the funding for Cycle Without Limits stems from the support of United Cerebral Palsy, a non-profit organization that has been sponsoring McHugh’s program for the last seven years. They are also a resource for those with disabilities hoping to become employed, independent individuals and have opened Cypress School in Petaluma, which provides a curriculum catered to children with Autism.

“My parents would bug me about why I got into a field that you can’t make tons of money off of,” says Margaret Farman, Executive Director of UCP in the North Bay. “I tell them that you just can’t buy the happiness that I get out of this job. If I ever get bummed out, all I have to do is come hang out with these guys and it’s all hugs and smiles.”

In a gymnasium filled with the sound of kids laughing, riding two-wheeled bikes for the first time and socializing with newfound camp friends, it’s hard to imagine a happier place.

“What we saw was that kids with disabilities were unable to do what other kids could do, and it was excusing them to participate,” says McHugh. Her program confirms that simply learning to ride a bike may be the first step to many, many more significant accomplishments for these children.

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