ON THEIR BIKES Pictured at the running track at GMIT Castlebar are some of the children who took part in cycling lessons with instructor Paul Maguire. From left: Ellen Black (14), Kiltimagh; Maria McKiernan (12), Louisburgh; Rory Killeen (9), Kiltimagh; Olivia Sheridan (11), Kiltimagh; Amy McHugh (8), Castlebar; and Euan Heaphy (12), Tuar Mhic Eadaigh.
Cycling lessons allow children with Down Syndrome to break new ground
The ability for their child to cycle is something most parents take for granted. It is as natural a progression as the first steps and first words. But for parents of children with Down Syndrome, it is not as straightforward.
Angela Black is the Chairperson of the Mayo Branch of Down Syndrome Ireland. Her 14-year-old daughter Ellen has Down Syndrome and Angela was always keen for her to be able to do as many things as kids Ellen’s age could do.
“Children with Down Syndrome fail to do a lot of things that their peers can do, but cycling and swimming they can do just as well, if not better, than their peers,” Angela told The Mayo News.
Training is needed, however, and while most parents can teach their kids how to cycle, parents of kids with Down Syndrome are not always so fortunate.
“Motor skills are an issue for a lot of children with Down Syndrome. You need a lot of patience and time and effort,” she said. The next step is far harder than it should be – finding someone to give cycling lessons.
“For years I have been trying to get someone to teach [Ellen] how to cycle, but with no luck. No one I spoke to was willing to teach a child with Down Syndrome how to cycle. Then I heard of Paul Maguire and I got in touch about a year-and-a-half, two years ago, and he gave my daughter a few lessons,” explained Angela.
Knowing other parents were also looking for an instructor, in her role as Chairperson of the Mayo Branch, Angela asked Paul to give group lessons, and he agreed.
A native of Dublin, living in Partry, Paul started lessons last April in GMIT in Castlebar with ten children from all over Mayo and 20 lessons had been completed by Christmas, when an awards ceremony was held.
Progress was slow, but steady, he explains.
“With kids with Downs Syndrome, we have them at 90 percent ability after 20 lessons. Getting to 100 percent ability is very hard. If they were left off on their own and fell we would be all the way back to the beginning. They would never forget that and would find it very hard to trust you again.
“As of now the only assistance I’m giving them is my hand on their shoulder and running alongside them. They are cycling on their own, they just don’t realise it. But as soon as I leave them, they get worried and stop. The next step will be to run alongside them with more of a gap between us,” he explains.
Sense of achievement
Watching on, Angela Black and the other parents could see the progress week on week and were thrilled.
“It has been a great success. The kids have really enjoyed it and it is a chance for the parents to get together too. I found the progress very good. Ellen can cycle now. She can balance herself and pedal. The next step is to cycle on her own.
“The kids enjoy it. They feel a sense of achievement and it is a big social thing for the kids too.
“It is also a chance to push the kids past their comfort zone. As parents we want to push our kids, not too far, but push them to activities they are able to do. If they are never taught how to cycle, then they will never be able to cycle. Most parents take it for granted that their children will be able to cycle. For parents of children with Down Syndrome, it is not the same.”
At the awards in December, Mongey Opticians gave out free transition glasses to kids that wear glasses, while the Bike Clinic gave out free accessories. The organisers are also grateful to GMIT Castlebar for free use of their hall and running track for the lessons.
The next step is classes in Castlebar and Westport, commencing next month. While they had plans to be able to hold a cycling event on a section of the Great Western Greenway last summer, that target had to be pushed back.
“It will take a bit longer to get to that level,” Paul explained, but he remains confident. “No doubt by late spring we will be organising it.”
Commenting on the supports available to parents of children with Down Syndrome, Angela said that sourcing cycling lessons was illustrative of just how hard it can be: “As far as we can work out, this is the first collective cycling lesson in Mayo for children with Down Syndrome. It is so hard to find someone to do it. It was really just word of mouth. There are no supports in place, no system, no list. We had to source it ourselves. Parents are left to their own devices to source anything like this.”
But there’s no doubt all the work to get off the start line has been worth it. Paul spoke with pride about little breakthroughs, and the impact that his lessons have had on the families’ lives.
“One of the children took a while to steer the bike. After seven or eight lessons I was telling her ‘You have to believe in yourself’,” he explained. “The child would be quite verbal and was telling me that she couldn’t do it. I got her up and running and she was coming back after 100 metres steering the bike herself and her mother’s eyes were watering. It is great for the parents to see them advancing like that.”
Pedalling towards new skills, and pushing themselves to new heights.