Think back to the last time you rode your bike. Pretty simple,right? And fun and healthy, too.
Now imagine doing it without your hands. And not just the moment you are riding along and yell to your friend, “Look, no hands.” But instead picture yourself riding with no hands from the moment you walk into your garage until you return from your ride and hop off.
Not so simple now, right?
But thanks to a collaboration between the University of Delaware Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Center for Biomechanical Engineering Research, and the Newark-based nonprofit Yes U Can USA, people here in The First State who have little or no use of their hands are going to have the same opportunity as anyone else of experiencing the pleasures and health benefits of riding a bike.
The project arose when Vickie George, a passionate outdoor adventurist who in 1995 was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis, decided she wanted to get back on a bike.
“I was an avid bicyclist before my MS set in,” explained George, who has lost most of the use of all four of her appendages as the MS has progressed. “And I was chomping at the bit to get back on one.”
George reached out to Yes you Can’s volunteer engineering consultant, Wayne Hunter, who then contacted the university. From there, thanks to four senior mechanical engineering students, George’s dream is going to become a reality.
“Basically, the trike is a hands-free device,” explained Dr. Jenni Buckley, an assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering who oversaw the project. “We’ve created braking and steering control systems that are controlled by a joystick and adaptable to any commercial trike.”
The hand-crank cycle, which earned semifinalist honors in the rehabilitation design competition at the 2013 American Society of Mechanical Engineers conference in Portland, will allow George to once again respond to a constant challenge by her friend, Deborah Woolwine, who, along with George, co-founded Yes U Can in 2005.
“I can’t tell you how many times she said to me, ‘Yes, you can, you’ll just do it differently,’” said George, who serves as the nonprofit’s president. “If I didn’t have that constant push behind me from Deborah, it would have been more difficult to get to the point I am at today.”
Today, George proudly boasts about the growth and expansion of Yes U Can, giving people with partial paralysis an opportunity to participate in activities they otherwise couldn’t.
“I can’t get on the leg press machine by myself, but I can press 180 pounds once I’m on it,” George explained. “On the lat press machine, I can’t move my arms up in the air, but when assistants bring the pulley system down and it pulls my arms up, I can then pull the weight back down.”
George can do it … just differently. And soon, others with disabilities will have the opportunity to enjoy biking.
Yes U Can is purchasing three hand-crank cycles by September and has formed a relationship with the state parks system to offer an adapted Trail Trike Program. The goal is to have an inventory of 25-30 trikes in the future.
“Our intent is to be able to offer this hands-free braking and steering system prototype so that people with partial or complete paralysis can also engage in an outdoor trail trike adventure,” George said.
And the opportunities won’t stop there.
“I was rowing on a machine at the YMCA and decided I really wanted to have a rowing program on the Christina River,” George said. “The next thing I know I’m getting an email from Dr. Buckley that more than 100 juniors in the mechanical engineering department would be working on an adaptable shell as a design project.”
The department used to work solely with local manufacturing companies when seeking projects for students, but recently it has branched out to include nonprofits, Buckley explained. The reaction by the students has been overwhelming.
“We give them a different project every year and this one resonated like none other,” Buckley boasted proudly. “For a lot of young engineers, it’s not enough to build something cool, but rather to do something that has an impact, and these projects definitely do.”
While the bike and rowing apparatuses give people with disabilities opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have, the benefits go far beyond the pure enjoyment a leisure activity.
“By keeping the body moving, a person with disabilities has a better chance of improving already compromised mobility, reducing or postponing the symptoms associated with their disability, and improving overall health,” George said. “And I think the psychological effects far outweigh the physical ones. It’s a liberating feeling.”
For the engineering students, the experience is something that can’t be taught from a textbook or heard in a lecture.
“The project rapidly went from just making something that works to re-creating an entire experience,” said Matthew Klixbull, one of the student designers who now works as a rotating equipment engineer at the Delaware City Refinery. “[It’s like that feeling you get] when you can finally play your favorite sport again because you recovered from an injury. I got the chance to help a sizable demographic of people experience that, when a majority thought they never would. That's pretty cool.
“We took a fleeting thought from Vickie George’s mind and created something from it,” he added. “It's a pretty neat thing to experience. It's as if Vickie was the artist and I and my teammates were the painters.”
For more information, visit facebook.com/yesucanusa.
Contact Jon Buzby at JonBuzby@hotmail.com and follow him @JonBuzby on Twitter.