Cycling as a means of enabling the differently abled

Michie O’Day was born with neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2), a genetic disorder in which tumors grow on the ends of nerve fibers. In O’Day’s case, the tumors grow in her brain and spinal cord. The disease and its treatment eventually led to loss of hearing and balance for Ms. O’Day. She is unable to participate in most activities she once enjoyed, including skiing, snow-shoeing, swimming, hiking, and cycling. Three years ago, she stopped driving car.

Deaf Cyclist - Michie O'Day

Shortly after moving to Portland, Maine, she spies a bike shop.

One sunny day almost two years ago as I was plodding along with my walker I looked at all the shiny new bikes in the window and thought, “Hmmmmm…. I wonder if they sell trikes for grown-ups?”

Fast forward about six weeks, and I’m riding home from the shop on my brand new Sun EZ Tadpole 21-speed Recumbent Trike. I cannot describe my excitement to you! It’s great fun to ride – like a go cart, only better – and it’s something I can DO! The trike opened up a whole new world for me.

Frankly, isolation is one of the biggest challenges of disability – especially for me due to the combination of deafness and mobility issues. While my art gives me another means of communication, cycling gets me out there and involved – part of the world.

Personal independence is another challenge of disability. I gotta tell ya, I love doing my own grocery shopping on my trike and coming home with two big bags of groceries in my rear baskets. It’s great to be able to shop or go out to lunch on my own schedule, get some exercise, and contribute to Portland’s economy. So yes, it may take an entire morning for me to do something that most of you can do in a few minutes. But I do it because I can.

I’ve known several people like Ms. O’Day who enjoy biking for the personal freedom and independence they otherwise might not have. They don’t bike for the environment or to save a few bucks on gas or to otherwise earn smugness points. They ride because otherwise they’re hobbling on a walker or sharing a ride on the local paratransit service.

Stories of personal empowerment are part of the reason the short-sighted morons who call for bans, restrictions and licensing anger me. In spite of her clear need to use the road, even some local police harass O’Day with extra-judicial stupidity as she rides.

I was cycling home … through some nice farmland and rural areas in Scarborough. That section of the road has a paved shoulder, but it’s not marked as a bike lane. It was sandy and cluttered with recycling containers, so I was riding in the right portion of the travel lane. Cars had to pass me carefully, and a few did. No big deal. Traffic was light that day.

Next thing I know, there’s a car pulled up beside me and the driver had slowed down to my speed. I look over… It’s a police car. His lights are flashing, including the red light on top. If his siren was going, I didn’t hear it. (I don’t hear anything.) But I saw that the passenger window was open and the cop driving the car was looking at me and yelling. I pulled over and stopped. The patrolman stopped his car in the middle of the travel lane, lights still flashing of course. He got out, ran around the his car, stood in front of me and started shouting at me again.

I explained that I’m deaf and couldn’t understand what he was saying. He was still agitated. I remained calm on the outside, but inside I was shaking. Probably because his holster and gun were in front of my nose…. Through pointing and gestures, he made it clear that I was supposed to be riding IN the shoulder lane, and that no part of my 36 inch wide trike should be in the travel lane.

I said no, that was not correct and that I had a legal right to use the roadway. I knew what I was talking about. But he wasn’t buying. He continued to insist and I continued to refute.

I admire O’Day for what she did next. She arranged a meeting with the Town of Scarborough police department where she (along with other bike advocates) explained the finer points of Maine’s vehicle code along with the rights of responsibilities of cyclists. O’Day also took the opportunity to explain communication with the deaf.

You can read O’Day’s story as told yesterday to the Active Communities Conference in Waterville, Maine at I Am Traffic: Overcoming Obstacles & Finding Freedom.

4 Comments

  • May 8, 2013 - 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Richard! I appreciate you sharing my story, and especially your narrative. NF can be difficult to explain, but you covered it well.

  • May 8, 2013 - 9:56 pm | Permalink

    This is the sweetest story ever. Ride, Michie, ride! You rock, girl!

  • May 9, 2013 - 1:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s a great article but:
    “They don’t bike for the environment or to save a few bucks on gas or to otherwise earn smugness points.”
    Why is that smugness? It almost makes it sound like one should have a handicap when you want to cycle without being ridiculed. As a matter of fact I AM very pleased about saving money and to help save the environment with the simple act of cycling.

  • May 9, 2013 - 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Oh I’m insufferably smug! No ridicule from me is implied.

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