UI professor teaches disabled kids to bike

By Matthew Richardson

Bicycling up and down the street is a pleasant childhood memory for many, but until recently, many children with disabilities have been unable to ride bicycles due to the fact that none were engineered for children with special needs.

Twenty years ago, Richard Klein, professor emeritus of mechanical and industrial engineering, began designing a bicycle that would offer enough stability to allow children with special needs to overcome the emotional and physical barriers that had previously prevented them from riding bikes.

“The kids come to us with three fears,” Klein said. “They fear speed, they fear falling over, (and) they don’t even like the idea of being on a bike.”

Klein’s bicycle is very different from a conventional bike with training wheels attached. Instead of normal wheels, the bicycle uses extremely long, short, stable wheels to get children used to the idea of being on a bicycle.

“I have an adapted bike, and (the bikes) get very stable,” Klein said. “Training wheels give the child the wrong impression of a bike, and the child will get the wrong motor impression.”

Klein is the founder of Lose The Training Wheels, a nonprofit group that specializes in teaching special needs children to bike.

“With a five-day format we get a large percentage of these kids riding a normal bike,” Klein said.

Klein got the idea to make the bike more stable while teaching at the University.

“I was teaching a course called dynamic systems,” Klein said. “I used a pedagogical technique, shared inquiry, that is instead of being a professor who asked students to memorize state capitals, I wanted my students to think. I asked them to write an essay about how a bike works, and that gave us a fundamental knowledge about how the bike works.”

Working with children with special needs isn’t something that Klein had set out to do.

“I’m a mathematician, I stumbled onto it by accident, but then I saw how important it was,” Klein said.

During the last 10 years, Klein has helped more than 3,000 children learn how to ride a bike.

“I did this for recreation,” Klein said. “I have two kids, I didn’t even teach either of them how to ride a bike.”