JMU Program Custom-Designs Bikes for the Disabled

Dec 8, 2015

Syerra Cesar is the recipient of this year’s JMU Bicycle Project.
Credit Photo courtesy of Rylie Power

For some, a bicycle means an affordable and environmentally friendly way to commute. For others, it’s the excitement of speedy descents down rugged mountain trails. But for one JMU professor, being able to ride a bicycle meant he could be an athlete -- and now, for one Harrisonburg teen, it’s a promise of independence.  WMRA's Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

Syerra Cesar is an enthusiastic sixteen year old.

SYERRA CESAR: I am a whole lot excited for this!

She loves going out for coffee with friends, and she is absolutely stoked about the prospect of having her own means of transportation courtesy of James Madison University’s Bicycle Project. Her mom is Harmonie McDonaldson.

MCDONALDSON: She's looking forward to it, a lot. When it was brought up to me, I said, “Syerra, you could get a bike,” and she was just like, "I can't ride a bike." She was just like what's the point here. And then I explained the situation, and she was just like, "Really? For me?" She's very happy that she'll be able to ride a bike--mainly so that she can get out of the house.

Syerra has cerebral palsy, which impairs her left side and her vocal chords. This past summer, her mom got a phone call from Dr. Thomas Moran, a kinesiology professor at JMU.

Moran was the first, and now Syerra will be the seventh, recipient of a bike developed and built through the collaborative Bicycle Project between JMU’s engineering and kinesiology departments.

When Moran began teaching at JMU, he contacted the then-brand-new engineering department and asked if any students would be interested in building him a bike. Moran, too, has cerebral palsy, but didn’t have the $10,000 that bicycle manufacturers would charge him to make a bicycle that would accommodate his physical limitations.

MORAN: So I sat down with a couple faculty members and at the end of the conversation they said, instead of one student, what if we turn it into the sophomore design project?

On his new elliptical style bike, with two wheels in the front and one in the back, Moran did something he hadn’t thought he ever would: he raced.

MORAN: When I crossed the finish line, I started crying. I was thirty years old when I did that race, and I realized for the first time in my life I got to be an athlete. Did I finish first? No. Did I finish last? Hell no. I think at that moment I was like, No person should have to wait thirty years of their life for this experience. We're making sure one person at a time they get a chance to enjoy activity and be an athlete and just get out and do things they never thought were possible.

The Project was initially funded by outside money, but Moran says the engineering department has since made it part of its operating budget. During the fall semester of this year’s project, engineering students observed and interviewed Syerra and began drawing, conceptualizing, and designing prototypes, with Moran’s student assistant Rylie Power acting as advocate for Syerra.

POWER: Hey girlfriend, how’s it going?

CESAR: Hey.

POWER: I can tell you the real-life application experience that we get is the most rewarding and most meaningful. I've heard engineering students say that this is the kind of work that makes the hours of memorizing formulas and doing math problems, this is what it means, this is why it's important.

The Project’s bicycles are more accurately called human-powered vehicles since they usually have more than two wheels. Moran says they and the Project benefit more than just the immediate recipients:

MORAN: Down the road somebody could work for Ford, and because of this experience, all of a sudden accessibility is in the back of their mind when it maybe wouldn't have been otherwise, or now they're part of a structural engineering project and they're like, "Well, yeah, this would make us compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but what's functional?”

For Syerra’s mom, the prospect of Syerra having her own transportation is a bit scary, but also a healthy option.

MCDONALDSON: At her age I was all across the town doing my own thing. She is really smart, she's really capable, so I'm just not ready to let go but I'm going to let her do it.

In the spring semester, engineering students will build the prototypes they’ve designed. Next summer, after Syerra picks her favorite, another will build Syerra’s new bicycle.