As a wheelchair user, I never imagined I'd be cycling alongside other commuters

Growing up, I used to look at cyclists and think, ‘Man, I wish I wasn’t disabled and I could do that’.

I’d see them in my cab on the way to the office and feel a pang of envy and internalised ableism. I always wanted to cycle but never thought it would be something that I would be able to do. 

I’m 26 and I live with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects my coordination and balance, both in my upper and lower body. I use a wheelchair to get around on a day-to-day basis. If I try to walk more than a few steps unaided, I’ll fall flat on my face!

It was only last autumn, when I realised I wouldn’t have to miss out any longer.

I was doing a coastal walk in County Wicklow, Ireland, and the battery on my wheelchair went flat. Defeated, I had to get my friend to push me to the bus stop in the rain several miles away, so I could recharge it back in Dublin city centre.

I thought that there must be a better way of getting around than this. My friend asked me if I had thought about handcycling and the idea kept chipping away at me.

It is essentially a wheel that attaches onto the front of a wheelchair and is powered by turning two cranks.

A few months later, I was getting something fixed on my chair and I asked about handcycling. The guys at Davinci Mobility have been making my wheelchairs since I was 10, but we’d never considered handcycling, due to my lack of balance and a fear that it’d cause me to be unstable and career into pavements and parked cars, rather than enjoy the open road.

I was able to give it a try and really enjoyed the ability to go where I wanted at a faster pace than my usual electric wheelchair.

Initially, the £3,500 price tag put me off a bit and I think my parents were a bit sceptical, not just because of the cost, but also because they doubted whether I’d get much use out of it. Some 4,000 kilometres later, I can say it was very much worth using the overtime money I’d been saving up.

It clips directly on to my wheelchair easily, meaning I can attach it myself in a matter of seconds. The power in your arms are only a third of the power in your legs, so I have a small bit of power assist for getting up hills, but the handcycle has helped me to maintain my fitness over the last few months.

Cycling is helping to improve my movements and upper-body control when lifting cups or glasses, for example. It’s made me realise that, with the right assistive equipment and support, anything is possible.

The lockdown restrictions have a big impact on everyone’s lives. As disabled people, we are pretty resilient when it comes to coping with the barriers society puts in our way, such as inaccessible transport, housing and workplaces and attitudes that, at best, convey a soft bigotry of low expectations and, at worst, lead to disabled people being ignored and isolated from society.

Perhaps the Covid-19 pandemic will give non-disabled people an insight into the barriers we face in society and in the workplace, as many have realised the need for reasonable adjustments, such as working from home and how inaccessible transport can be.

My bike means more freedom. But unconscious bias in cycling infrastructure leads to inaccessible routes and means people are put off before they even try. People prefer to see us as our conditions and focus on what we can’t do, rather than look at what we can achieve with the right adjustments and support.

For every 100 drivers who give you a thumbs up or doff their cap metaphorically, there’s always one who shouts at you to get off the road, seeing me as a ‘wheelchair’ rather than a cyclist. This happened to me the other week when I was cycling in Liverpool city centre, but I’ve as much right to be there on my handcycle as drivers do.

I’ve derived a greater awareness of my area, getting to know street names for the first time in my life. When you take the bus or get a lift somewhere you don’t really get to know your surroundings.

Here’s hoping that greater focus on active travel can make our towns and cities more accessible and liveable for all.

My Life Through A Lens

My Life Through a Lens is an exciting series on Metro.co.uk that looks at one incredible photo, and shares the story that lies behind it. If you have an experience you would like to share, please email [email protected] with MLTAL as the subject.

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