Riding on my bike

‘Hello?’

‘Hello, I was just wondering if…’

‘Sarah, your trike isn’t ready yet. We’re still working on it. We’ll call you, promise.’

I felt unreasonable for ringing for the third time this week about a tricycle that up until a week ago, was slowly rusting in my shed. Alison has started cycling in the evenings, and watching her has stirred a hunger in me. Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit rubbish in myself. and I asked myself what made me feel better when I was younger. And the answer was a good, long cycle. It was a time when I was independent, not reliant on others. Free.

I could be getting my dates wrong, so forgive me, but I think it was Christmas 1992 that Santa got me the two things I’d asked for: Matilda by Roald Dahl and a bike. It was a lovely bike, red and white with black stabilisers and a carrier on the back. I couldn’t wait to try it. After the initial excitement of Christmas was over, we brought it down the conservatory steps and I hopped on. I hadn’t cycled six feet when I fell off. Undeterred, I tried again. And again. And again. It wasn’t working.

‘I don’t understand,’ I moaned. ‘It has stabilisers. Why do I keep falling off?’ Truth be known, I think my parents were disappointed as well. We had overcome so many obstacles and barriers and here was one that seemed insurmountable. Perhaps riding a bike was beyond possible for me.

The following summer I was sent for my annual ‘holiday’ in Clochan House. It was as much a break for my parents as it was for me, and it was a thinly disguised regime of physio, occupational and speech therapy. It was also a chance to make friends and have a bit of a laugh without having to answer ten million awkward questions about my disability. That was the week that Dorothy Oakley, possibly the best physio that ever lived, introduced me to the secret lives of the tricycle users.

‘Want to try one?’ she asked with a twinkle in her eye.  Half an hour later, she was panting trying to keep up with me in the hospital car park, ‘Slow down, I can’t keep up!’ I was in love. I knew that, from that moment on, my life would be very different.

Fast forward six months to Boxing Day. ‘Just got a phone call off Santa,’ my dad announced that morning. ‘There’s been a mix-up with one of your presents. The silly sod left it in Cummins’ shed!’

Bewildered, we wandered across the road where my neighbours opened their shed to reveal a red tricycle! Even then I was smart enough to know this wasn’t the work of Santa but rather of my parents pushing the Health board for months beforehand. Up to that point it was the happiest day of my life. Despite the fact that it was freezing outside, I spent the remainder of the Christmas holidays cycling around our patio, imagining I was in the Tour de France. I used it as a ‘taxi’ for my little sisters, who hopped on the bar above the back wheels and held onto the back of my seat. When I started school in the Sacred Heart, I insisted on cycling to school, hanging the bag on the back. I think my parents drove me to school a total of six times in as many years; I even cycled in snow, such was how precious the independence was to me.

By the time I’d finished second year in 1999, my knees were jutting out over the handlebars, but there was no way I was surrendering my independence. I became wary when my dad started to refer to it as a ‘skittery aul’ bike’ but what was the alternative? There was no way I was going to allow Mum and Dad to drop me to school. One July evening, my dad and Uncle Charlie arrived home in a van. It was 10.30 and the sun was rapidly melting in the sky.

Dad called me. ‘Come out here please.’

I was trying to think of what I’d done wrong when the sight of the most beautiful contraption knocked the breath out of me. It was a majestic navy tricycle, with gears and a basket twice the size of the wire ones in supermarkets. I was in love, however, when I cycled it down the road, I was petrified. It was too big, too fast, and I was sure it would be the cause of my untimely demise.

‘I’ll stick with the red one’ I said, nursing the poppy bruise on my shin.

Needless to say, I did not stick with the red one, and why would I? I could carry my sisters in the basket (Or I did until one of the neighbourhood lads asked to be carried in the basket  and buckled the wheel). It took me exactly four minutes to get from our house in Whitehall to the Sacred Heart, which meant that I was often still eating at half eight. I did my Christmas shopping every year on my trike. I hung around Whitehall for hours talking, delighted to have the energy to do so. It soon became my trademark, which beats being a poor, defenceless little cripple.

Unfortunately, when I was in second year in college the tricycle got stolen from our house in Tullamore, and despite gardai reports and appeals on the radio, it was never recovered. I still mourn its loss, but it wasn’t suitable to bring to Dublin. Once I moved back to the Midlands, however, I began to miss it. I moved to Portlaoise in 2007, and ended up staying at home most of the time. I had an old wheelchair but I still missed the trike.

Then a miracle happened, at just the right time: in 2009, a month after mum passed away, I was granted funding for a new trike. This couldn’t have happened at a better time; I had started moping around and hiding away. I started cycling to do our shopping, started spending afternoons in the library, cycling around the park. Our tenure in Portlaoise came to an abrupt end after I was followed home from Caffe Latte in Lyster Square to our house on Harpurs’ Lane in March 2010. This guy, I later found out, was highly dangerous. As I fled from him that day, I glanced at my speedometer – I was cycling at 16mph, and he still caught me. I would’ve had no chance in a wheelchair, I don’t  think.

My trike was instrumental in organising our wedding, collecting bits and bobs – I even brought my wedding dress to be dry-cleaned afterwards on it. It kept me fit until I got pregnant, and sadly after that I struggled to find the energy to get back cycling, until now.

I’m hoping that cycling will improve my physical and mental health, but I’m also looking forward to reclaiming something that makes me ‘me’. I’m looking forward to cycling with Ali and showing her that there’s always more than one way of doing things, if you’re willing to think outside the box.

Round my Hometown

I was born and reared in the Midlands town of Tullamore for nineteen years.

Between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five, I decided to spread my wings and I moved to Dublin while studying in Trinity. I loved Dublin and living independently, and I think my favourite part was being able to get around so easily, whether it was in my electric wheelchair or using public transport (buses and Luases, I mean. The DART is notoriously dangerous and unreliable for people who use wheelchairs or have mobility difficulties). The Luas in particular became my lifeline when I was living out in Rathmines, and I used to use it coming into work in Trinity during the summer. When somewhere is easy to access and get around, it really adds to your quality of life. At one point, I was both working and studying. It was great.

Although I loved Dublin, I knew that I couldn’t afford to stay there after I graduated. So I moved to Mullingar, then Portlaoise before finally choosing to stay in Tullamore. It was great to be in a place that I felt I belonged in and that I thought I could get around easily and independently. And to be fair, I could – until I started using a wheelchair. Suddenly, certain areas of Tullamore didn’t seem so welcoming to me any more.

I’ve always believed that disability is defined by the obstacles that are created by society rather than one’s individual impairment, and I believe that reasonable accommodations such as ramps, clear signage, wide step-free doors and loud signals at pedestrian crossings can go a long way in ensuring our town is accessible to all who use it. In 2014, the Offaly Leader Forum (now the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum), which is a group of people with varied disabilities – physical and sensory – organised and conducted a full-scale accessibility review of Tullamore, the first of its kind in ten years. As people with disabilities, we were the experts in identifying barriers to access in town. The group took the undertaking seriously, taking photographs and compiling reports, and subsequently these reports were compiled into a hundred-and-one paged document, an impressive achievement by any standards. We then presented it to town councillors in Tullamore Town Library (which is accessible, according to our audit) and urged them to see Tullamore through our eyes.

Since making our presentation, the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum has established good working relationships with our town councillors, who we have met with several times to voice our concerns. Through doing this, we are now working together, and we have urged the council to consult us whenever they make changes in the town. And recently we discovered that our annoying persistence is starting to pay off.

Little changes and repairs are taking place all over town, but for me the most significant of these is  the ramps that have now been installed on the top of Main Street and at the Srah Roundabout. I live in Glendaniel, which is ten minutes’ walk from the Town Park, Lidl and Alison’s primary school, Scoil Mhuire, and the installation of these ramps means that I no longer have to proceed beside the footpath on the road onto traffic coming off the roundabout. It’s safer for me, my child and for the poor drivers who I’m sure don’t want to dent their cars on my wheelchair…! And the best part of the repairs is the knowledge that as a group, the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum, were taken seriously and listened to. But then again, we were dealing with people we knew for years, and people who have always supported the Laois/Offaly Leader Forum, for example Eddie Fitzpatrick and Declan Harvey (among many others, of course). Isn’t that the most important thing: being able to truly be an equal part of your community?

Now, more than ever, I’m looking forward to raising our child in a town that means so much to me. The town where I went to school, and developed a passion for writing. The town where I got my first summer job in the Tullamore Tribune, as well as my first ‘real job’ in the Offaly Centre for Independent Living Ltd. The town where my neighbour, who used to live eight doors down us, remains my best friend.

I have to admit, Tullamore always was a pretty great place to live, but with these little changes to our town, it can become a great place for everybody to live independently.