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Disabled Motorcyclists Refuse To Quit Riding

Several AMA members shared their experiences of overcoming disabilities to keep riding. Some of those stories are listed on this page in their own words:

Motorcyclist with disability

I put many, many miles on my old Harley-Davidson XLS 1000, from Mexico to the Yukon, from Pacific to Atlantic. In 1996, I reached the point where I couldn't ride it so I took it to Lehman Trikes. I had a hell of a time unlearning countersteering. When the trike finally got too old, I bought a new FXDX trike and have put 3,000 miles on it so far. I have two vehicles: one trike for summer, one old truck for winter.

A friend of mine, Scott Hancock, is a paraplegic due to polio. He drives his wheelchair onto his sidecar and latches the wheelchair in place. A lever on the right side of the sidecar retracts the ramp. All the controls have been moved to handlebars on the sidecar. His wife, Toni, can ride on the motorcycle seat or he can go down the road with nobody on the motorcycle, which draws some stares.

Mary McFarland
(photo above)
Clark Fork, ID

See more stories below.

In 1967, Chris Draayer felt like he was on top of the world and headed for great things. A factory rider for Harley-Davidson, he stood third in the AMA Grand National Championship points and was aiming for his first national title.

All that changed at Sedalia, Missouri, when he crashed during a race. Both legs were broken, his neck was fractured and his left arm severed. He had barely reached his 20s and it looked like his motorcycling days were over.

Chris Draayer suffered his disability in a more public and spectacular fashion than most, but otherwise he is little different from many other motorcyclists with disabilities who do not want to give up motorcycling.

There are riders on the road today who are amputees, like Draayer, or paraplegics who use wheelchairs for mobility. There are riders with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy or other illnesses that create special needs. Some riders merely find that old age has limited their abilities, but they don't want to stop riding just because they've hit their 90s.

Draayer had help from former competitor and 1969 Grand National Champion Mert Lawwill, who helped build an artificial limb that attaches to the handlebar but will release in a crash. But the fact is that most riders with disabilities are essentially on their own when it comes to finding a way to keep riding.

That's because there is no one-size-fits-all, mass-produced solution for riders with disabilities. In talking with dozens of riders with disabilities and people who have created products or modified motorcycles to help those riders, a few common facts emerged:

  1.  Riders with a disability often go looking for a company that makes products to meet their needs and find nothing. The most successful riders have modified existing products on the market to meet their unique needs.

  2. A disabled rider's best friend is often a local craftsman who understands motorcycles and fabricating equipment using machining tools. A sympathetic expert can often build a solution that's not otherwise available.

  3. There is no currently functioning national organization for disabled riders.

All three facts can be traced back to two central reasons: The number of disabled riders is small and each person's situation is different.

A company producing, for example, a lever system allowing a rider to operate the rear brake via a hand lever might only be able to sell a few a year. It's an important market to those few customers, but not something a company can produce to make a profit.

The other reason few companies offer products for disabled riders is concern over liability issues. Tomco Conversions, a company that used to custom-build sidecar rigs for wheelchair users, was chased out of business by a liability lawsuit. Rick Oliver, owner of Tomco, said he enjoyed helping get riders on the road for seven years, but could no longer face the liability risk.

So what do you do if you're a rider facing disabilities that threaten to keep you off a bike?

  • First, read the personal experiences of other riders for inspiration.
  • Second, check out the list of companies that offer products that might be helpful.
  • Third, consider which existing motorcycles may completely or partially solve the problem. A rider unable to use his right foot might need nothing more than a motorcycle with linked brakes, something several models are equipped with straight from the factory. A person who cannot operate a hand clutch might be happy with the new scooters, which have full-sized engines and no clutch.
  • Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, if you don't have the fabrication skills to complete the modifications needed on your own bike, in a way that will get you on the road safely, seek out an expert who can help you. Ask your riding buddies, visit local machine shops and quiz area mechanics until you find someone who can help you put the finishing touches on the modifications you need.

Then get out on the road and enjoy life.

Resources For Disabled Motorcyclists

I have disabilities that make swinging a leg over a motorcycle not impossible, but uncomfortable. Also, I have hands that don't work too well, which makes it difficult to use the clutch lever. Several years ago, I sold my Kawasaki Voyager and was bikeless for a while. Then I heard about the Honda Helix. I still have it and I'm still riding.

So, I would suggest to those who can no longer handle a motorcycle, check out one of the new "super scooters." They have big motors and are fast enough to run with any traffic anywhere. Plus, there is no clutch lever.

To those who might say, "Yeah, but it ain't a motorcycle," I say, "Try it. You might like it. And at least you're riding again."

Bob Kerns

Hopkinsville, KY

My girlfriend's name is Robin. She's a beautiful woman who is gifted in many ways. Robin suffers from spina bifida, a fusing of the spine that forces her to use a wheelchair or crutches. The characteristic that most drew me to her was her spirit. She could easily complain about her condition or acceptance but she never has.

When we started riding together on my 2000 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic, we ran into several stumbling blocks. The most challenging was devising a way to carry her wheelchair with us.

Well, Robin wanted to ride so bad and I was determined to give her that. So, after one bright idea, three toolboxes, a new luggage rack, and four 2x4s later, I had come up with a workable product. It holds the wheelchair like the garage hangers you use for bicycles. After a test trip, we set off on a summer run to Sturgis, South Dakota.

We rode 3,800 miles in nine days, through rolling hills and valleys, across rivers, through the dry Badlands, up into the Black Hills, stared at the majesty of chiseled rock, through canyons and past pastures that seemed endless. On the return trip she was pelted with hard rain as we chased a thunderstorm through South Dakota and Minnesota. She didn't complain, even on our last day, when we pushed ourselves 16 hours through Pennsylvania to our home in New Jersey.

I believe all things are possible with hard work and patience. I also believe that this woman has shown me the real meaning of the words courage, endurance and spirit.

Vinny Cucchiara

Bloomfield, NJ

My wife, Alice, has carpal tunnel syndrome in both of her hands from working a manufacturing job all her life. She had problems holding the clutch lever in while we rode in heavy traffic, so I installed a White Bros. Easy Boy clutch arm kit. The kit extends the clutch arm at the transmission so that at the clutch lever you have more leverage. This allowed her to hold the clutch in for extended periods while in downtown Sturgis. She really likes it!

I have an artificial leg. My leg was amputated due to a birth defect. The only real difficulty I have riding is shifting with my left leg, as I don't have any ankle movement. The heel-toe shifter on my Harley works real well for me. I used to ride dirt bikes and missed many a shift while riding in the dirt. My buddies got used to hearing my bike singing away while I hunted for the next gear.

In conclusion, there are always ways of overcoming a handicap and doing the things one likes to do in life. Don't ever say, "I can't." That statement can be your downfall.

Dennis Stanke

Portland, MI

I have cerebral palsy, a muscular disorder that affects my legs, hands and speech. I also have scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the spine, and I was unable to walk until age 7, when I had surgery. That has not stopped me from riding street bikes and ATVs. I currently race ATVs for the sheer pleasure of having fun in the dirt and for the competition. A person needs to take risks in life sometimes. I'm glad I did. Otherwise, I would have missed out on a lot.

Todd Macke
Decatur, IL