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Teaching a Blind Student to Ride

This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Bicycle Friendly America magazine. To see the latest issue, go to bikeleague/org/bfamag.

As a part-time cycling instructor for GetAbout Columbia, a division of the Department of Parks and Recreation in Columbia, MO, I was asked if I would be interested in teaching Gretchen — a woman who is blind — to ride a bicycle. Without hesitation, I said that I would. I’d taught a number of people of all ages through the years, but never someone who was blind.

The first thing I did was reach out to my fellow League Cycling Instructors (LCIs). Most responded with the recommendation that I introduce the woman to tandem riding. But no one said, “Oh, I’ve done that,” or “That’s great, go for it.” After doing some Internet research, all I could find was information about a man who was born blind and used echolocation to ride. Yet, I remembered reading that Ray Charles had taught himself to ride a bike despite being blind since age five. So I figured it was possible and I could think of no reason not to work with this woman if she wanted to learn to ride a bike independently.

Before I met her, I found out that she had been blind for the last nine years and had ridden a tandem on three occasions with a fellow instructor, Rachel Ruhlen (LCI #2532). When I finally met Gretchen, I wanted to know: What was the extent of her visual impairment? She said that she became blind when she was 24 because of a genetic defect called Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. She was told there was no treatment or cure. She said it was difficult to explain but she had no forward vision and only spotty and blurry peripheral vision, and even then only if she turned her head and concentrated. She also relied on environmental cues. If she knew she was outside she might be able to point to an object and say, “I believe that’s a large tree.”

Gretchen_Joe

I also wanted to know her goals. Why did she want to learn to ride a bike? She said that she wanted to better understand the balance needed when riding a tandem so that she could become a better stoker (rear rider on a tandem bike). Being on the board of directors of the PedNet Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for active transportation, she wanted to know bicycling nomenclature so that she could follow more of the discussions among her peers. By learning to cycle, she wanted to open up possibilities of riding with sighted guides or using devices such as the x2cycle (a tow bar that Rachel used when her daughter was young). But foremost, she had wanted to learn to ride from the time she was seven and had a bike with training wheels that were never removed.

I told her that if she wanted to learn to ride, I saw no reason why she shouldn’t do that. I would do all I could to help her learn. On the other hand, once she got off of a protected parking lot, there are numerous hazards that could cause her to crash, even with sighted guides. I showed her samples of objects that could take her down if her front wheel hit them (i.e., a small rock, a stick, two off-set boards glued together to demonstrate uneven pavement, and the opening of a cup to show her the size of a pothole that could take her down).

At the end of the first lesson, I introduced her to a Catrike I borrowed from a friend. At the end of each successive lesson she’s asked if I brought the trike and if she could use it. She enjoys tooling around the parking lot with Rachel riding behind as a guide.

Gretchen

Before asking a student to do something on a bike, I’ve always demonstrated what I wanted them to do. But in this case, I left my bike at home since Gretchen wouldn’t be able to see me. However, after the first lesson, I wanted Gretchen to understand some things I did with a bike. So, for the second lesson, I hooked a dog leash to the back of my bike so she could follow without me bumping into her. I wanted her to see how fast I needed to go to have good balance, how wide of turns I wanted her to eventually make, and how I could slow the bike with the brakes without stopping.

I limit my learning to ride sessions to one hour. Learning to ride is a strenuous activity, and students don’t usually realize how tired they get during that hour. I also like to have at least a day between each lesson. With our various schedules, we were able to meet only once a week. Still, half-way through the third hour-long lesson, I felt that Gretchen was controlling her bike well enough to put the pedals on. Then, boom, she took off. A bit shaky perhaps, but she was riding and controlling the bike on her own!

What are the next steps for Gretchen? Obviously, she wants to become a more proficient and confident rider. She wants to explore options of riding with sighted guides or using devices like the x2cycle (no longer available). And because of her positive experience riding on a tandem, she and Rachel are exploring starting a tandem riders program or club for the visually impaired in Columbia, a silver-level Bicycle Friendly Community.

But specifically, what was the outcome of teaching someone to ride a bike who may never be able to ride safely outside of a protected parking lot? Gretchen explained it best. When asked how she felt after she had ridden a bicycle independently for the first time, she said, “This was the most freedom I have experienced since driving a car before I lost my sight nine years ago!”

— Joe B. Silsby, Ph.D., is LCI #626.

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