“Cripples Lie Down!” Or Else!
The New York Times Puts the Disabled in Their Place —
And It’s Certainly Not on the Saddle of a Bicycle

Early one morning, little more than a week ago, after enduring two nights without sleep and suffering waves of intensifying abdominal pain, Farwell found his way to the local hospital’s Emergency Department, where, in the fullness of time, he was prescribed a course of fluoroquinolone antibiotic. And the result? The infection is now under control. That’s the good news. But it’s not the whole story, and the other news isn’t so good. Farwell can no longer walk. Both of his Achilles tendons have been damaged by the drug. A man who thought nothing about walking miles at a brisk pace — he once stayed even with a father-daughter team of tandem cyclists throughout a half-mile climb — Farwell now finds it difficult to shuffle the 20 feet from his desk to the bathroom. As someone who shrinks from emollient euphemism, he sums up his recent experience with a few blunt words: “I entered the hospital’s ED an acutely ill, yet very fit, man. I left it a cripple.”

Why am I bothering to write about this? It is, after all, a purely personal matter. But I have my reasons. Though Farwell can walk only a few feet without incapacitating pain, he can ride a bicycle for half an hour. (He uses a low gear and takes great care to place his arches squarely over the pedal axles, thereby keeping his ankles in a more-or-less neutral position throughout each stroke.) In other words, he can’t walk, but he can ride a bike. I’m not surprised by this seeming incongruity, however. I’ve been there myself.

Nor is Farwell’s and my experience unique. I’ve corresponded with MS sufferers who found they could ride a bike long after walking became a chore, and many medical researchers are intrigued by evidence that some people with advanced Parkinson’s disease can still cycle. Here’s an example:



The take-home message? You can be disabled, even profoundly disabled, and still manage to get around on two wheels. I wouldn’t have thought this would come as a surprise to any moderately intelligent, reasonably observant individual. But it seems that I was wrong. A recent muck-raking piece in The New York Times described instances of alleged Medicaid fraud, in which several “social adult day care centers” were said to be providing unneeded services to “fit” beneficiaries, and profiting greatly as a result. I can’t comment on the substance of The Times’ allegations. I’m not in the business of muck-raking. But I did notice that the author of the article, Nina Bernstein, seemed astonished that any disabled individual could ride a bike. In fact, she was apparently ready to dismiss the possibility out of hand:

In Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, at the new R & G Social Adult Day Care Center, ... most people there for lunch did not stay to eat. Instead, many walked briskly toward the subway carrying bags stuffed with takeout containers, and two elderly men rode away on bicycles with the free food.

The message was clear: Disabled people don’t belong on bikes. The two “elderly men” who rode off with their “free food” were either pawns in a corrupt contractor’s shell game or they were scammers in their own right. There is no other possible interpretation. Or at least that’s The Times’ view. And just in case you didn’t get the point, the photo caption at the head of the article drives it home: “Clients of R & G Social Adult Day Care Center in Brooklyn can get takeout lunch. Some travel to the center by bicycle.” (I’ve added the emphasis in both quotes.)

But Bernstein isn’t alone in her belief that disabled folks have no business in the saddle, even when using their bikes to run errands. (That’s what cars are for, isn’t it? Sure it is.) She describes Jason Helgerson, New York’s Medicaid chief, as “express[ing] surprise and anger” at hearing a reporter’s description of “some of the practices observed at [the day care] centers.” And it was clear that what surprised and angered Helgerson most was the notion that some disabled people might be cyclists. Here are his words on the subject, as quoted in The Times’ piece: “The idea that people are bicycling home from managed long-term care is a complete misnomer.”

What can I say? (Other than to observe that New York’s Medicaid czar doesn’t know the meaning of “misnomer,” that is.) I’d be happy just to echo the Duke of Exeter, and dismiss Bernstein’s and Helgerson’s willful ignorance with the “scorn, slight regard, and contempt” that it deserves. But something more is warranted, I think. So here goes:

Guess what? The day when cripples were happy to lie down is long gone. Many disabled individuals — most, I suspect — want to stay as active as they can for as long as they can. And if that means getting on a bike, so be it. Farwell, newly crippled and facing weeks (or months) of painful rehabilitation, isn’t about to lie down. He’s riding his bike. And so, I strongly suspect, are some of the disabled clients of New York City’s social day care centers. They deserve respect, not ridicule. Furthermore, it’s just possible that many disabled individuals can’t afford to own a car, can’t always get rides to go where they have to go, or simply don’t enjoy doing battle on crowded, dirty, and often dangerous buses and subways.* They’d rather be independent. Should they be ridiculed as scammers or dupes as a result? I think not.

But then, as Hilaire Belloc once observed, “it is no use to argue … in the face of imbecility.” So perhaps I should content myself with expressing my scorn for the Bernsteins and Helgersons of this world, after all. People who condemn individual effort and impugn a desire for independence deserve nothing more than contempt, surely.


* News flash! Disabled individuals in rural areas can’t hop on a bus or ride a train, even if they wanted to. They’re on their own from the get-go, and their health often suffers as a result. I wonder if this angers New York’s Medicaid supremo. It should.


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For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.