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Meet the bike designer who changes lives

Freedom Concepts works with therapists and medical professionals to properly design bikes to accommodate the needs of individuals across North America with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, Angelman syndrome, Rett syndrome and visual impairment.

Custom bikes make cycling dreams come true

Colin Bock designs bikes for those who never dreamed riding a bike was possible. (Sabrina Carnevale/CBC )

The first time Jerzee Wasylnuk rode her bike with her friends, her mother cried.

"That's something you think about when they're small: 'Will they ever be included to their full capacity?'" says Jacquie Wasylnuk, whose 12-year-old lives with cerebral palsy.

"And that moment, when she's just her, hanging out with her friends, and they're on bikes, just riding around — it's really, really special."

Jerzee Wasylnuk's mobility was achieved thanks to Freedom Concepts, a Winnipeg company where a team custom designs and builds bikes for people — mostly children — who would never otherwise be able to cycle.
This custom bike has made walking easier for Jerzee Wasylnuk. She credits cycling for improved muscle strength. (Trevor Brine/CBC News)

Founded in 1991 by Ken Vanstraelen, Freedom Concepts works with therapists and medical professionals to properly design bikes to accommodate the needs of individuals across North America with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, Angelman syndrome, Rett syndrome and visual impairment.

Engineering technician Colin Bock even helped design an adaptive bike for conjoined twins in British Columbia last year.

"It had to seat three people, and the twins had to sit very close to each other, obviously," says Bock. "It took us a couple months to design and manufacture. That was a very exciting project."

Every bike at Freedom Concepts is built to order, so before Bock starts work on a bike, the company meets with the family to find out exactly what the requirements are.

"We start with our standard frame but then we'll modify it or design a new feature or function to add on," Bock says. "A lot of that revolves around special needs for seating or steering."

Building bikes for people in far-flung locations, such as the twins in B.C., also presents challenges.
Every stroke of the pedal targets muscles that need strengthening. Since she started cycling, Wasylnuk is using her walker more than her wheelchair.

"We relied heavily on input from the physical and occupational therapists, emails and photos, to ensure we learned about the individual's abilities and constraints," says Bock.

It's a constant process of learning and reimagining the bicycle.

"Our engineers are constantly brainstorming on how we can make a riding experience better, and how we can get someone to regain their mobility," says Evan Paterson, marketing supervisor at Freedom Concepts.

But Freedom Concepts builds more than "just bikes" — the business changes lives.

The bikes not only increase mobility and comfort, they also improve the individual's quality of life.

"So many of these mothers and fathers don't even look at biking as a possibility because they see their child in a wheelchair all day," says Paterson.

"When we put a child on a bike and they take their first few revolutions, they're not looking at where they're going, they're looking at their legs because they've never seen them move like that before."

That was the case with Jerzee, who was born nine weeks premature and suffered a brain bleed.

Jerzee has low muscle tone from the waist down so she uses a walker, and turns to a wheelchair when she gets tired.

When a therapist suggested her parents look into getting a specialized bike for her, they were surprised. 

"I did not know a bike like this existed, so when I saw one for the first time I was blown away that it was actually possible," Jacquie says.
Freedom Concepts works with therapists and medical professionals to properly design bikes to accommodate the needs of individuals across North America with disabilities. 3:38

And Jerzee's bike has helped her with more than mobility and inclusion — it was designed and constructed to help strengthen her muscles.

"When Jerzee gets measured for a bike, they look at all the specific muscles she needs to work on, and they build the bike to those specs," says Jacquie.

"So when she's pedalling, her muscles are getting the exact workout that they need to get stronger to help her in the future."

Jerzee and her family have noticed major mobility improvements since she got her bike. Jacquie and Jeff say that Jerzee now mostly uses her walker, instead of her wheelchair.

But for Jerzee, the greatest gift the Freedom Concepts team gave her is the simple but life-changing joy of a kid riding a bike.

"It felt amazing; I just went down the street pedalling as fast as I could because I had never done it before," Jerzee says.

"Now I ride bikes all the time, for cross country runs at school, the Terry Fox Run, even just in the yard or on trails with my family."