Tandem Cycling at Lighthouse for the Blind Deaf-Blind Retreat

by Eric Shalit on January 15, 2015

That's Penny Leclair from Ottawa on the left and me (Eric) on the right. Penny is an experienced tandem cyclist and I am not. It was a privilege to meet and ride with her.

I just returned from 2.5 amazing days at the Lighthouse for the Blind’s Seabeck Deaf Blind Retreat. I was invited by Randall & Barb Angell (Team Angell), a dedicated tandem cycling couple who want to share their passion with people in the blind community.

For 31 years, Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. of Seattle, has hosted a week of fun, laughter and tactile love for American and international Deaf Blind adults, as well as sighted volunteers. About 60 Deaf-blind campers ages 20 to 82 attended the camp, where they participated in a vast range of camp activities, socialized with new and old friends, and partied hard. The retreat was held at the historic Seabeck Conference Center on Washington state’s beautiful Hood Canal.

Each camper was usually accompanied by a volunteer support service provider (SSP). SSPs worked as interpreters, many using tactile communication, some using close vision, some signing from across the table, depending on the visual field of the deaf-blind camper.

As a sighted and hearing person this was a new world for me. I started with little understanding of the deaf-blind community. I’ll try to tell a short version of the story in a way that sighted and hearing people like myself can understand. I’ll do my best to accurately convey information here, but want to apologize in advance to my new deaf-blind friends. Should I make any major errors, feel free to correct me.

That's dedicated stoker Joshua, enjoying our northwest summer weather, with captain Randall. Joshua signed up for at least 6 separate 2.5 mile rides. Randall and his wife Barb are Team Angell. If Joshua and I had our own team it would be called Team Danger! Joshua is a cycling fanatic who needs a tandem captain in his Minnesota hometown so he can pursue the sport he loves.

All campers are legally blind with some degree of hearing loss. This encompasses a broad spectrum. Individuals have vastly varying degrees of mobility and communication techniques. Some campers can see at close range, but still rely on a cane for walking, and are able to communicate by visual signing. Some communicate by speaking and signing. Some communicate via tactile hand-over-hand signing.

Though legally blind, Joshua has some sight and pretty good hearing. On top of that I think he is a bit of a thrill-seeker, which I admire. In case you're wondering, this photo was taken in the church parking lot (our base) and not on the open highway. I'm confident in saying Joshua's cycling skills are better than the driving skills of many of the sighted drivers we cyclists encounter on the roads.

Some individuals have Usher Syndrome, or “tunnel vision” and the range of that tunnel varies person to person. Some individuals were blind first and later lost hearing, and may be more reliant on spoken English and the use of assistive listening devices and may not sign at all.

Stoker Elizabeth Walker is a native New Yorker like me. She lives on Delancey St. in NYC and loves to sign-talk as much as I love to speak-talk. I clearly detected a NY accent in her signing.

My friend Penny (photo at top of article) has been blind her whole life. Later she became completely deaf. She lived completely deaf and blind for years until receiving an experimental cochlear implant which gradually enabled her to hear and speak again. Her story is an example of the complexity and diversity within the deaf-blind community. It is not one thing. Since Penny is a writer, rather than attempt to tell Penny’s story here, I’m looking forward to having Penny share her story with you in her own words in the not-too-distant future. What I can tell you is that Penny rode tandem with her husband in Ottawa for many years. He passed away two years ago. She owns her own tandem and rides with sighted friends from time to time, but not as much as she would like. She told me that tandem cycling is a wonderful way for blind people to be part of the “normal” world and stay healthy. She is actively advocating and promoting tandem cycling through her writing.

Update: Penny wrote her story which you can read by clicking here.

The camper at left is riding with my son Gabe on a side-by-side tandem manufactured by JTB (Just Two Bikes) and provided by Outdoors for All Foundation. Gabe is learning sign language and will be taking classes in Deaf Studies at Seattle Central Community College as a Running Start high school student.

As a sighted-hearing person I do not consider tandem cycling with deaf-blind people to be a charitable act. I believe each of us is isolated in our own little worlds and benefits greatly from sharing our lives and experiences with people from all cultures and backgrounds. I captained a borrowed tandem with deaf-blind stokers, and would be lying if I said I was fully-abled in that capacity. No one was injured, but we had one close call (sorry Randall!).  I’m looking forward to riding tandem again with fearless deaf-blind stokers and bringing my sighted cycling friends and their friends into this world. Participating in this camp affirms my belief that if cycling is not a social activity for you, you’re doing it wrong.

My son Gabe (right) communicates with Kevin Sampson with the help of SSP Cindy Holmes, as SSP Jason B. looks on.

Stoker Kevin Samspon is a Yakima tribe member from eastern Washington. Captain Randall said Kevin is a powerful rider with non-stop endurance.

Another rider readies for take-off.

Veteran tandem captain Steve Haverstock and stoker Jeff Foster just finished their ride.

Another tandem team just returned from successfully completing the 2.5 mile loop through the neighborhood.

Camper and SSP enjoying the ride on one of the side-by-side tandems provided by the Outdoors for All Foundation.

Volunteers and seasoned tandem riders Pat & Kathy enjoy the late summer Puget Sound weather.

Randall & Barb Angell (Team Angell) were the hub around which this wheel was built.

The beautiful and powerful Hildegard having her face decorated before the dance. Hildegard was my first rider. At about the 1.5 mile point the tandem chain broke. Fortunately for me, Hildegard kept me from panicking. We walked the remaining 1 mile back to our base just as our group was organizing a search party. Hildegard is German born, lives in the East Village in NYC, and swam every morning in the Puget Sound lagoon at camp. She's tough stuff and now a good friend!

Mardi Gras had nothing on the dance party. It was a wild & crazy scene. The music volume was pumped up so high that hearing participants were given ear plugs. DJ Tobias signed, pantomimed, and brought the house down with his devastatingly funny physical interpretations of classic songs like Sam Cook's 'Having a Party'. When he pantomimed 'cause I'm havin' such a good time, dancing with my baby', I clearly saw him dancing with a toddler. People will be signing about his rendition of 'I'm Too Sexy' for years to come. If anyone has a youtube video of his performance please send me a link.

Friends talking at the dance party. The gal on the left came to camp all the way from Netherlands.

Strikingly glamorous camper and SSP at the dance party.

I often noticed the woman in the red cap at every meal. Though she communicates exclusively through tactile hand-signing she is such a powerful communicator I found myself deeply moved by her conversations with friends. I don't believe in telepathy, but perhaps that's what was going on. I don't know her but my sense is she has defied her disabilities. Her guide dog is sitting under her chair.

Footnote: Even within the sighted-hearing community there are many shades and nuances of perception and communication. Photographers typically have a heightened sense of seeing. Some of it’s innate, but can also be learned. We’ve all heard people who despite playing a musical instrument for years will never be considered good musicians. There are painters who clearly have a heightened sense of color. When we eat at a nice restaurant, we hope the chef has an acute sense of taste. Where many people see woods or hear birds, a naturalist sees complex nuanced ecosystems and hears specific birds. Mathematicians are able to visualize another dimension that most of us can’t see. A good nurse can detect subtle cues in a patient’s health. Then there are the horse whisperers, dog whisperers, and all, who dare not reveal what their pets told them in secret. So, this whole sighted/blind, hearing/deaf thing is complex and highly nuanced. Each of us may never know the intensity and detail of how and what another person is perceiving when they smell a rose, taste an apple, look at a dragonfly, hear the wind, or feel a warm summer rain on their face.

Click here to view about 180 photos I took at camp.

Essential Resources & Links

Call to Action: We’d like to be part of making tandem cycling a year-round activity for blind cyclists. If you’re a sighted cyclist interested in doing what you already love and making new friends, click here to contact Randall & Barb or me, Eric Shalit and we’ll try and make it happen. Perhaps you’ve got a used tandem in your garage that you’d like to contribute to the cause. I’m sure you could get a nice tax deduction for it.

Outdoors for All Foundation provided most of the bicycles and bicycle-like contraptions. The Outdoors for All Foundation is a national leader and one of the largest nonprofit organizations providing year round instruction in outdoor recreation for people with physical, developmental, and sensory disabilities since 1978.

The U.S. Blind Tandem Cycling Connection endeavors to increase the participation of individuals who are visually impaired or blind in the exhilarating sport of tandem cycling. They serve as a resource to:

  • Connect blind and visually impaired cyclists with sighted cyclists
  • Educate people about tandem cycling
  • Disseminate information about cycling clubs, events, and opportunities
  • Address the needs of the blind tandem cycling community

The Seattle Lighthouse is a private, not-for-profit agency providing employment, support, and training opportunities for people who are blind, Deaf-Blind, and blind with other disabilities since 1918. Its philosophy maintains that each employee be provided with whatever supports are necessary for success in the workplace. Supports include an in-house sign language interpreting department to ensure effective communication for Deaf-Blind employees, staff mobility instructors to teach independent travel with a white cane or dog guide, and over 100 computer workstations adapted for use by visually impaired individuals.

Seabeck Conference Center provides non-profit organizations with the perfect escape from the hectic pace of daily life. The facilities are located on 90 beautiful acres with sweeping views of Hood Canal and the Olympic Mountains. The grounds are reminiscent of a small village, complete with walkways that meander past manicured lawns, fruit orchards, and wooded trails. Steeped in history and beauty, it’s easy to find yourself transported back to a simpler time.

Many thanks to the Christian Worship Center of Seabeck, Washington for providing their facilities as a staging area for the tandem bicycle rides.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Don Smith September 2, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Good on ya Eric- Thanks for sharing that!
That looks like a lot of fun, (and having lumbered around with my brother on a windy and steep trail in Port Angeles on an old tandem bike i have great respect for anyone who handles it gracefully!) Sign me up for next time…


Samantha September 2, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Looks like you all had a great time – what fun! We have a Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind here in the windy city – wondering if they do anything like that here? I’m interested in adaptive riding, though my focus is on kids with challenges like Cerebral Palsy – but hey, we all can ride together!


Mark September 2, 2010 at 9:07 pm

What a wonderfully written article!


Tracy Mills September 2, 2010 at 10:25 pm

My hat’s off to your writing and your working with a wonderful group of people in getting them all OUTSIDE, where they mostly want to be! I am thrilled to see you and Gabe getting involved in that world and learning to communicate with some, in many cases, obscurely incredible people.


Sylvie September 3, 2010 at 11:04 am

I have 2 friends, Amanda and her friend Mike, who are both visually impaired. They can hear and they both function perfectly well socially, they just can’t see (Amanda has a guide dog & Mike uses a cane). I was just chatting with them the other day about getting them out on a ride, on a tandem, and they loved the idea!

They’re both sure cool, in their early 30s, fun, outgoing people who really want to ride bikes. Anyone want to help coordinate a ride for these guys?


Eric Shalit September 3, 2010 at 11:35 am

My friend Don Smith shared the article with his 95-year-old friend Jeanne from church. She emailed him this:

Learn something every day, don’t you?

My cousin was deaf and married to a deaf man. My brother, sister and I went to their 40th wedding anniversary and my brother remarked that he had never gone to such a quiet party before, yet such an active one with hands and fingers flying and faces animated. It was an experience . . . both are no longer living. Neither is my sister. My brother and I communicate constantly. He lives in Portland, OR. Our cousin did adopt 2 boys and reared them to become young men. They were both deaf as well. None were blind.

Dr. Phil recently had on his program a couple who have deaf/blind triplets which was a truly learning experience.

Thank you for the piece.


JRF September 3, 2010 at 11:50 am

Super article on tandeming!

Though I’m perpetually overbooked with things to do, I would like to register
interest in being at least aware of events for blind cyclists. I’m a sighted
cyclist already equipped with a tandem, living on Vashon. My usual stoker is
my 9 year old daughter. Another population I’ve found is interested in tandem
riding are those with Parkinson’s disease. See this NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/health/01parkinsons.html


Gabriel Shalitmontagne September 3, 2010 at 11:45 pm

I already miss being there. I actually missed being there the moment we left.
Seeing these peoples expressions and hearing what they were saying through my extremely minimal sign language skill and all the interpreters was a life changing event.


Marilyn Hill September 4, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Wonderful article and pictures, Eric. Even more, what a great shared experience for you and Gabe and extending it to the rest of us. I appreciate being connected to you and your family.


Outdoors for All Foundation September 12, 2010 at 4:27 pm


Thank you for the wonderfully written blog about the retreat! It is one of our favorite events every year to attend. Your blog did a wonderful job of capturing the event. Thank you!


Kathleen Wilson September 13, 2010 at 12:22 am

Eric & Gabe,
What a great and powerful experience for you both! I’ll be spreading the word and have at least one friend who I think will be interested in participating. Thanks for being out there doing what you do!


Paul Deeming October 7, 2010 at 12:17 pm

As an 8 year veteran SSP volunteer at Camp Seabeck, I thoroughly enjoyed your blog and the pictures of many of my DB friends and fellow SSPs. Biking has become a HUGE and popular activity at camp. The freedom you have given the deafblind campers is incredible, and an experience few will ever forget. I hope you and your fellow biking enthusiasts will continue to bless us at Seabeck for years to come!


Susan Weston October 22, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Thank you for sharing your time at the retreat and thank you for making tandem riding available to my sister, Penny Leclair, who you have portrayed in your story, and yes, she is one amazing deaf blind person! I am so proud of her and her accomplishments! But it is with thanks to volunteers like yourself.


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