Riding…and not seeing

“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.”

John F. Kennedy

That’s right. Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride. And many of us take that simple pleasure for granted. Why? Because we can do it any time. If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then next week…

But what if that weren’t a possibility? What if you couldn’t do that ride next week?

That’s the real situation some of my friends face. They can’t just jump on the bike and ride. They used to be able to ride, just like the rest of us. But now, it’s just not something they can do. Because they can no longer see. Did you know that around 90% of people who are blind/visually impaired had sight earlier in their lives? They more than likely learned to ride a bike when they were young, just like you and me. And I’m sure they enjoyed it, just like you and me. But that simple pleasure is no longer one they can enjoy, without help.

A few months ago, I met a man who organized bike rides for blind people. He came down with retinitis pigmentosa some years ago. It is a genetic disease that results in gradual loss of vision because of the loss of rod and cone receptor cells in the eye. As they are lost, vision gets progressively more difficult. Total blindness is not common, but many sufferers, like my friend, eventually can distinguish only some light and dark.

He used to ride a lot before he developed retinitis pigmentosa. He wants to keep riding. So he tracked down a couple of tandem bikes and put out a call for sighted bicyclists who would be willing to pilot the tandems. He plans a once-a-month short ride (many of the blind riders have not been on a bike for many years).

I answered the call, because it felt like a great way to help bring the simple pleasure of a bike ride to people who might not think they could do that again. So in December, I went on my first “blind bike ride.” It was a terrific experience. I saw things I had never seen. I experienced the ride in a whole new way: I described everything I was seeing to the blind stoker on the back of the tandem. I told her about the giant Christmas wreaths that one homeowner put up between the columns on the large two-story house we passed. She told me about the car coming up behind us before I could hear it. I told her why we were moving left (to pass the motorist who was unloading the car up ahead). She talked about the aromas coming out of the restaurant coming up, and because she sensed that, she knew exactly where we were! The give and take continued, from Bayou St. John into the French Quarter, and back.

We enjoyed the ride; the sighted pilots and the blind stokers all. We’ve done a few rides now and we’re branching out. One ride was in City Park, with stops at the Singing Oak, Morning Call, and the Besthoff Sculpture Garden. We’ve contacted the New Orleans Museum of Art about a more formal visit there. Next month we’ll be back at NOMA’s Sculpture Garden, meeting with a docent to teach us a bit about some of the sculptures…and the visually impaired riders will get to experience the sculptures by touch! We’re talking about a couple of new rides: a historical ride, with licensed tour guides, and a pub ride to some of the local craft breweries.

We’re all learning a lot, and are looking forward to more rides. What’s next? Riders who are challenged in other ways…Adaptive bikes? Trikes? Hand bikes? Yes, we’ve got ideas. We’re at the start of something good.

In the end, it’s about that simple pleasure. The joy of riding a bike.

P.S. Want to get involved? Send me a note. I’ll be happy to help you get involved.



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