So, for much of the past year I have, on and off, been helping a group of adults with learning disabilities get cycling. They’ve been learning how to ride a bike, and I’ve been learning a fair bit too. I’ve learned that there are many ways to get a bike into motion and everybody has to find the one that works for them, and I’ve also learned that people with learning difficulties get very quickly put in boxes and the one marked ‘will never be able to ride a bike’ appears to be a particularly common one, often on the flimsiest of evidence.
Some of them – including those who, we were told, ‘simply didn’t have the balance’ to ride a bike – have taken to it like ducks to water, needing little more than a bit of scooting along on a bike with its pedals removed before they were off and away with huge grins on their faces. Others, it’s fair to say have needed a bit more time before they could make the transition from scooting to pedalling, but have got there in the end. We’ve even managed a few group rides along the cycle paths and parks (and pavements – there’s no way they’re ready to tackle even the quietest road) and it’s been great fun.
And then there’s Stephen
I’ve been teaching Stephen to ride a bike now practically all year. We have inched forward. He can balance a bike and scoot it along. He can scoot with one foot on the pedal. He can get the pedal up to the prescribed position and press down to set the bike in motion. He can do this without looking at his feet (fatal for a bike’s balance). He can even find the second pedal with his foot ready for that crucial second pedal stroke. And then, the problem is he’s so tentative, that when he does actually pedal with his second foot, he generally does so backwards. And this is where we have got stuck.
Yesterday, I was beginning to despair. We could not get past that second pedal stroke. There’s no way to break down riding a bike any more than we had already done, practising each individual bit. We had reached the point where either he would get the hang of it, or I would destroy what precious little confidence he had built up. I really didn’t know what to do.
Finally, randomly, I found myself saying ‘pedal like a boss!’ just as he launched the bike forward. I have no idea why I said it, nor why that combination of words did it (indeed it turns out he thought I was saying ‘like a box’), but as long as I said ‘like a boss!’ just at the crucial point, then his foot would find that pedal in time and press it down in the right direction. He even shot forward at one point so fast he almost collided with me (I have to walk backwards in front of him if he’s to look ahead rather down at the ground). OK, so we haven’t quite reached the point where he’s pedalling away independently, but he has definitely ridden a bike, if only for a few yards.
Unfortunately, on Monday we head off to the US, and I won’t be back with Stephen until the new year. By then, perhaps, he may have forgotten everything we’ve learned these past few months. Still, I’m hopeful that now that I know the magic words, we will eventually see him cycle off, if not into the sunset, then at least in a straight line. And then I’ll need to work out how to teach him how to stop…