BORP supports mobility for the disabled

By Adam Hunt, photos by Scot Goodman

I’m lying on my back. Everything I think I know about bikes is wrong. For one thing, the bike has too many wheels—in fact, it’s a tricycle. There aren’t any pedals, so my feet sit in front of me and are strapped into so me stirrups as if I had mistakenly signed up for an OB/GYN examination. The majority of the bike’s controls are operated by one hand; there’s a SRAM mountain bike trigger shifter and a single brake lever for my right, while the left operates a frame-mounted lever that moves the front derailleur between the three roadbike-sized chainrings.

The front wheel sits so close to my face that I can smell the pads melt when I engage the bike’s only brake. The bike doesn’t turn like I expect due to the extra-long wheelbase. I can’t unweight my body when I come to a bump or a dip. It’s difficult to see behind me even with a mirror. With my legs strapped in front of me, the only way to move the bike forward is to turn the cranks by hand. And those are the just the easy things.

Founded in 1976 as a small student program at UC Berkeley, the Bay Area Outreach and Recreational Program (BORP) is a California-based non-profit that offers year-round sports and recreational programs to both non-disabled and disabled participants. Programs include adaptive cycling, adaptive skiing trips, kayaking and rafting, goalball (a soccerlike game developed by World War II veterans for the blind and visually impaired), power soccer (soccer played with powered wheelchairs), and wheelchair basketball.

BORP’s broad-based approach enables it to address the needs of a wide range of clients. Programs are designed to meet the needs of people with: paraplegia, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, head injuries, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, strokes, and visual impairments. Disabled and non-disabled volunteers run BORP’s activites, which are offered on a low-cost, no-cost, or sliding-scale basis as appropriate.

Since transportation is a critical barrier to participation for many people, BORP provides it for many of its program activities. I asked BORP’s cycling program director, Greg Milano, how the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has changed the funding of BORP.

“BORP is funded through a combination of federal and local government grants, private foundation grants, and individual donors,” Milano said. “Our annual fundraising ride, ‘The Revolution,’ is essential to our funding. BORP’s adaptive cycle fleet has been built up through a combination of private donations, grant funded purchases, and support from some of the cycle manufacturers and retailers. As we have become more visible, many people have donated to us their private cycles when they upgrade or no longer need them. BORP’s programs are free for youth under 18; and for adults we have an annual membership fee of $100. We offer scholarships and won’t turn anyone away for financial need.”

According to Andrew Leibs’ recent article for the website Suite101.com, “Disabled students are twice as likely to drop out of school, become pregnant or abuse drugs as their non-disabled peers, and 73% of disabled American adults are unemployed.”

While Milano said students enrolled in BORP did not have to maintain a specific GPA, BORP’s Youth Program Coordinator meets with parents and teachers to monitor their performance in school. Over the past ten years, 98% of BORP’s youth alumni have graduated from high school with more than 80% going on to college. During my first ride with BORP’s youth handcycle program, Jesus (last name withheld due to his status as a minor) cheerfully told me that he was in the process of applying to UCLA.

My first ride with BORP takes place on a chilly summer morning. A steel gray canopy covers the sky. Located adjacent to Berkeley’s Aquatic Park, BORP’s adaptive cycling center is part storage area, park workshop, and part marina. The weekend sun can barely shine through the haze and a wintry breeze blows across the San Francisco Bay. Cars passing on the nearby freeway add to the chilly wind as a group of young handcylists get ready to go for an early morning training ride.

Most of this group’s handcyclists are part of BORP’s programs, and participants range in age from seven on up. Due to the cost of handcycles, most of the kids make use of one of BORP’s fifty on-site loaner cycles. They come in a variety of different configurations: some are sleek racing machines that are low to the ground in order to decrease drag and increase stability; others are upright cruisers for comfort. There are even off-road handcycles and handcycle tandems. Many have three wheels, but some off-road models have four. As with regular cycles, these categories are simply broad generalities. Despite some difference in posture and purpose, the unifying commonality is that handcycles use a hand crank somewhere in their drivetrains. Oftentimes, handcycles are modified by Milano, also the resident gadget guy.

Have a mobility issue with your hands but need a way to shift a handcycle? Greg can make it happen. There’s a tandem couple— one rider pedals with legs and the other with arms—but it’s not a problem. Greg will get you going.
“All of our cycles are manufactured by professional companies,” said Milano, “but myself and the BORP volunteers make small changes and adjustments to things like the hand and foot pedals, crank sizes, shift levers, and seating arrangements to make them work for specific individuals.”

“Because almost everybody has different needs and body types,” continued Milano, “we generally spend over an hour with a first-time rider to figure out the best bike and adaptations needed. Once we figure things out, it usually takes less than 15 minutes to get them set up and readjusted the next time they come. Many of our riders learn to do all of the adjustments themselves.”

Not only does Milano work as BORP’s sure-handed bike tech, he is also working hard to set up BORP’s adaptive boating program in the near future. Prior to coming on board with BORP, Milano was the kayaking program coordinator for the San Francisco-based Environmental Traveling Companions (ETC). Eventually Milano wants to be able to take advantage of BORP’s proximity to Aquatic Park’s man-made lake and have a fleet of adaptive kayaks, sailboats, and canoes at the ready.

“BORP is an organization driven by its users. We were founded by people with disabilities and have developed our program based on local interest and demand. Our cycling center is totally unique because our goal is to provide as much independent use as possible. We recently added an accessible dock on the lake at our cycling center and intend to develop boating programs with the same objective—totally independent use,” said Milano.

Finally, after a series of minor delays, I set off with Milano and the crew for my first BORP ride. Milano uses a handcycle for the ride while I take my Surly Steamroller. He drifts back and forth amongst the riders, checking up on them, giving them gentle words of encouragement, while I take up the back as the “Lanterne Rouge.”

The only other regular cyclist is Bohnett Bohnett, who is riding a singlespeed beach cruiser because he feels it gives him a better workout than when he brings his mountain bike to ride with his son James. The ride takes us up and over the I-580 pedestrian flyover, then drops us onto a multi-use pathway that runs parallel to the freeway’s frontage road. We head north towards Golden Gate Fields racetrack, up the grinding hill towards the track’s parking lot, then drop down its backside near one of the parking areas for the Albany Bulb.

Bohnett’s son, James, who was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, joins the group getting underway.
“Essentially, this was a natural amputation of his lower legs in the womb. That said, he would most accurately be described as a bi-lateral, below knee, amputee…at least in disability terms,” Bohnett said.

James Bohnett is a high-energy teenager who says he’s gotten a lot out of his experience with BORP. “I believe I have become a more social, confident person than I ever was before, and because of that, I find it easier to dream big.”

I asked another handcyclist, Zach, what he got out of BORP:

“BORP has made me physically active and stronger. I didn’t play any sports until I was ten years old and now I love it. I also have friends from all around because we travel to different events,” he said.

The group begins to spread out with the stronger riders taking the lead as we make our way to the Point Isabel dog park. Occasionally, a cyclist has trouble weaving through the traffic pylons at intersections due to the width of the handcycles. Eventually, the multi-use path winds its way into a waterfront residential district, at which point Milano stops, waits for all the riders to catch up, then after everyone is rested, turns his handcycle around and tells everyone to head back to BORP for basketball practice.

On the way back, James loses a cotter pin assembly that holds his leg brace onto his handcycle. He laughs it off like it’s not a big deal. And it isn’t— the handcycle is still functional. Bohnett turns his beach cruiser around and embarks on a seemingly impossible task, finding a small metal cotter pin that is somewhere on a hillside littered with rubble, potholes, bits of crumbling asphalt, and shards of broken glass. Cars and trucks roll by. James and I chew the fat as Bohnett climbs up the hill on his cruiser in search of the missing pieces. Minutes later, Bohnett reappears triumphant. Somehow, some way, he’s found the missing cotter pin. While the ride’s pace was brisk, the members of the youth cycling program still have a long day ahead of them.

After they get back to the Aquatic Park facility, it’s off to a three-hour basketball practice and a wheelchair truck-pulling contest:

Back at the Aquatic Park garage, Milano tells me that I had only gotten part of the BORP experience, and advises me that I should come back and try a handcycle.

One of the big developments is that BORP will move its headquarters to the easily accessible Ed Roberts Campus near Berkeley’s Ashby BART station. The adaptive cycling program, however, will remain at Aquatic Park. The new headquarters will also provide adaptive yoga, core conditioning, and mat Pilates for folks with, and without, disabilities. The Ed Roberts Campus will also become home to eight other non-profit organizations that work with the disabled: the Center for Accessible Technology, Computer Technologies Program, Center for Independent Living, Disability Rights Advocates, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, World Institute on Disability, Through the Looking Glass, and Whirlwind Wheelchair International (makers of wheelchairs for third world countries).

A few days later I’m back at BORP, and in accordance to Milano’s wishes, I borrow a handcycle. During my outing I cruise up the multi-use path that parallels the frontage road of I-580. Somehow or another, the sun finally breaks free from the bonds of cloud cover and lights the path ahead of me. Unlike riding a regular bike, the wind doesn’t cool me. This is a particular problem for people with spinal cord injuries because of the often-resulting inability to accurately regulate core temperature. In a rare flash of forethought, I actually brought a hydration pack with me so I don’t overheat, but I can easily see how someone could.

Eventually, I get to a nice turn-around point near Powell Street in Emeryville and have to use a combination of pushing the handcycle backwards with hands on the ground, then maneuvering myself with the hand pedals, and repeating the process until I can make a multi-point U-turn. Finally, I make my way back to my nemesis, the flyover. This time, I am somehow able to drop the chain into the small chainring. It’s not much better. I still sweat and grunt. While it doesn’t quite feel as if a Wookiee had pulled my arm off and beaten me with it, I know I’ve had a workout.
I get back to BORP’s parking area and Milano is there to meet me and ask how I liked the handcycle. I told him that I had really gained a new level of respect for the kids I rode with the other day. I work my way out of the confines of the handcycle, stand up, and walk the cycle back to the garage. I’m a total phony.

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