Along for the Ride: How adaptive biking enriches the lives of people with disabilities

Two Chicago-based nonprofits with suburban connections — Out Our Front Door and Envision Unlimited — are pioneering adaptive biking to deliver outdoor experiences, seemingly unattainable not long ago, to individuals with special needs.

Bradley Fisher, volunteer coordinator of Bike Camping for Everyone! at Out Our Front Door, said, “If you aren’t a parent with a special-needs child, it’s hard to describe how isolating it can be.”

In just three years OOFD addressed that isolation, embracing adaptive biking in its outdoor bike camping schedule.

With mother Tina and sister Chloe, Lilia Fisher gets a taste of riding on her first trailer bike in 2010, leading to future bike camping experiences with Out Our Front Door. Courtesy of Bradley Fisher

Adaptive bikes are mechanically modified to accommodate an individual’s physical requirements. Foot platforms, hand cranks, seat belts and other accommodations open worlds of freedom to special -needs individuals and their caregivers.

Fisher’s younger daughter, now 18, was born with a rare genetic disorder initially limiting her cognitive, speech and motor abilities. Determined to include Lilia in their active outdoor life, he and wife Tina introduced various sports via adaptive equipment.

On bikes, she progressed from passive passenger to active rider. From a Burley trailer bike, modified by The Bike Rack’s Hal Honeyman in St. Charles, Lilia graduated to a recumbent tricycle, adaptive tandem, and finally a regular two-wheeler. Fisher credits physical therapist Josephine Hipolito of Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley with that mastery.

The family began trying adaptive sports events hosted by Adaptive Adventures. Those “gateway activities,” noted Fisher, whetted their desire for more inclusive, nature-immersive experiences with the “ camaraderie that comes with tent camping under the stars.”

In 2021, they recruited nine families from Adaptive Adventures, doing three day-rides — Skokie Lagoons, Busse Woods, Northerly Island — culminating in an overnight camp out.

An OOFD board member, Fisher channeled his passion and vision into transforming the organization’s original 2015 bike camping mission into a reality for Chicagoland families with special -needs children.

With support from organizations like Lombard’s Thumbuddy Special, Cook County Forest Preserve, Chicago Park District, KEEN Chicago and others, OOFD expanded its bike camping program.

Adaptive bike camping

Bike Camping for Everyone! launched in 2021 with 50 overnight campers, including 10 youth with special needs. In 2024, Fisher envisions 125-150 individuals biking to campsites, including many special- needs families: Oak Forest’s Camp Sullivan (June 14-16, Oct. 12-14), South Holland’s Camp Shabbona Woods (July 19-21), and Warrenville’s Blackwell Forest Preserve (Aug. 16-18).

“Enjoying beautiful natural areas has nothing to do with one’s cognitive ability, intelligence or physical ability,” Fisher said. “People with disabilities deserve a life of adventure, exploration — just an amazing life like anyone else.”

He hopes to expand OOFD’s overnight camping program to adults with disabilities.

Day rides offer another adaptive biking option. Lincolnwood’s Becky Klinghofer explained how son Eli, 15, who has multiple disabilities, became involved in OOFD outings. He participated in Youth Unbound, OOFD’s 2022 program coordinated with Emily Oakes Nature Center and Skokie Park District.

“Youth Unbound Camp was the highlight of Eli's summer,” Klinghofer said. “He was so excited to be out riding and hanging out with his friends each day. This really opened our eyes that bike riding for Eli could be so much more than just neighborhood rides.”

In 2023, Eli and his dad camped overnight with OOFD, and plans to take his family’s adaptive tandem on day rides this year.

Summer of Cycling

A “duet” tandem allows Envision Unlimited member Geneva to enjoy the fresh air with volunteer and board member Tim Smith. Courtesy of Envision Unlimited

Whether it’s Buddy Biking on Chicago’s 606 Trail, Big Marsh Park or its Summer of Cycling program, Envision Unlimited enables its members, individuals with disabilities, to tap into biking’s sense of freedom and independence.

Launched in 2017 with a donation of five tandems, EU’s Adaptive Cycling is one of several programs promoting choice, independence and inclusion for thousands of members with intellectual, developmental and psychiatric disabilities. Founded in 1948, EU offers a range of care services at multiple Chicago locations: day programs, community living options, employment programs, respite for families, behavioral health services, and foster care for children with disabilities.

Adaptive Cycling began as part of EU’s Adventures Unlimited, a day program providing a variety of recreational activities. Its bike “fleet” now numbers over 40 wheeled options for members: recumbents, trikes, standard two-wheelers, “duet” tandems with wheelchair in front, even electric assisted side-by-side tandems.

“Member interest in biking daily is a constant,” said program coordinator David Pufundt. His vision of year-round biking — both indoor and outdoor — is a real possibility given his family’s donation of 35 spin bikes as former cycle studio owners.

Per CEO Mark McHugh, “Last year, our members and volunteers pedaled over 5,000 miles across trails, paths, tracks and city streets, drawing attention to the benefits of cycling.”

Pufundt started at Envision Unlimited over five years ago, and helped originate Adventures Unlimited. The program focus is on immersing members in community experiences: bowling, fishing, sports events, etc. Biking was a natural program component for Pufundt, regularly bike-commuting 22 miles from a Northwest suburb to an EU day center in Humboldt Park.

2023 Volunteer of the Year Jenny Achuthan stokes behind tandem captain and Envision Unlimited member Anthony at last September's Bike the Drive as coach Paul Groshko beams. Courtesy of Envision Unlimited

Frequent Buddy Biking rides on the nearby 606 Trail involve staff/volunteers from its Westtown Center program. Volunteering since 2017, Jenny Achuthan is a veteran Biking Buddy, pairing up with members for weekly rides. A Lincoln Park resident and 2023 Volunteer of the Year, she’s been involved ever since.

At 20 hours weekly as a Westtown “floater,” she works with adult members on various tasks: taking walks, biking, watering plants, gardening — basically enlisting their help in “whatever needs to be done,” adding, “the other day I painted fingernails!”

She helps those participating on any given day, enjoying special connections with certain members. It’s no wonder she’s so enthused. “I’m greeted like I have a fan club.”

Besides weekly Buddy Biking, Achuthan accompanies members on special Summer of Cycling events, like last August’s “Cycle the Track” event at Northbrook’s Ed Rudolph Velodrome and September’s Bike the Drive along Chicago’s lakefront.

Envision Unlimited members and volunteers line up this past June 2 on various bikes for their race at the Ed Rudolph Velodrome in Northbrook. Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak

Summer of Cycling 2024 incorporates a new twist: Evanston Bicycle Club’s North Shore Century. Accommodating EU members unable to ride its 25-mile route, club president Douglas Hoffman is designing a special five-mile course near Northwestern’s campus. To my knowledge, that’s a first for a Chicagoland club.

• Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at

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