Learning to ride a bike is a significant milestone for children, and they love the freedom it brings. But a child with disabilities requires special help to ride. In the past, bike riding was usually not an option for special needs kids, but today's modern bikes offer a variety of options to meet the needs of all but the most severely disabled. Since special needs vary, different bikes are needed for each child.
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Most kids are introduced to cycling through the use of a tricycle. Some kids with special needs may never graduate from the stability of a three-wheeler, but modern trikes will take even the oldest child around the block in style. For younger children, there are a variety of tricycles with adaptive supports. These include self-leveling pedals with straps, dual axle systems to reduce resistance and make pedaling easier, adjustable body support and specialized handlebars for easy control.
Children with vision impairments require the assistance of a person who can see to ride a bicycle. Traditionally, a blind child would have taken the back position while a sighted person rode up front to steer. Modern tandems, either two wheel or three wheel, allow the child to sit up front. The person in back controls all the important functions of steering, braking and gearing. The special needs child can pedal and enjoy the ride.
Hand Crank Bikes and Trikes
Many bikes and trikes can be retrofitted with hand crank systems that allow a child without use of his legs to ride. For a child with limited use of his legs, some bikes can be retrofitted to allow combined hand and pedal power. Bikes can also be modified with one-hand controls, shifter and brake adapters, seat belts and safety harnesses and electric motors.
Young children love riding in bike trailers pulled behind their parent's bike. Trailer options are available for special needs children of all ages. A peditruck allows an able-bodied person to pull a trailer with a wheelchair-bound child. The trailer includes a ramp and tie downs for easy access and safety. These bikes can be equipped with an electric assist to help pull the added weight of the wheelchair.
Custom Built Bikes
Many bike manufacturers can build a bike to meet the needs of the physically challenged. Bikes and trikes can be built to accommodate varying heights, missing or unusual limbs, paraplegia and other challenges.
Bikes for children with special needs are not cheap. They tend to run $1,000 or more, topping out at about $6,000. For some children, they can be considered therapeutic equipment, and medical insurance may help with the cost. Disability services in your state may also have funds available to help. If those are not available, consider applying with national service groups such as Variety the Children's Charity, Easter Seals, Knights of Columbus, Rotary Club, Kiwanis or the Make-a-Wish Foundation. There is a helpful link in the Resources question.