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Freedom on three wheels

Freedom on three wheels
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photograph by phillip simpson

Innovation

Chris Haverkort refers to his daughter Brooke as a “bike ambassador”, a role model for other children with cerebral palsy.

“Some people want to push people like Brooke into a corner,” he says. Yet the 16-year-old recently took part in the Weetbix Kids’ Tryathlon, won an award for most-improved student at Mt Roskill Grammar, and managed a kilometre with the aid of her walker.

“She even goes down to the shops to get bread and milk by herself,” Haverkort says proudly.

And it all comes down to the unique tricycles he pioneered 12 years ago, which he continues to design and manufacture today. Hoping to ease his daughter’s transition into school, he came up with the idea of modifying a standard tricycle by welding on custom-made parts that would enable her to ride it. Initially, school authorities were sceptical, “but it’s a lot easier to have Brooke on a bike than in a wheelchair”.

Brooke’s new ride gave her unprecedented mobility, strength and independence, both indoors and out. Soon Haverkort, with the help of some neighbouring businesses, was building trikes for other cerebral palsy sufferers in his spare time from his Henderson factory.

Haverkort, an electrician with an engineering background, ensures the pedals, seats, handlebars and wheels on his designs are all adjustable for stability and safety, while other accessories can be appended or removed according to its users’ needs. For example, Brooke cannot operate a traditional bicycle brake; her trike features a simple lever attached to the centre of the handlebars. And they’re quickly dismantled for easy transportation.

Haverkort says the trikes boost kids’ self-esteem in spades as they remove the stigma attached to wheelchairs. “It makes them much more approachable— people come up and talk to you and want to know about it. Apart from the therapeutic and fun value, it turns them into ‘cool’ kids.”

According to Haverkort, public places with rules against bikes, like the zoo, are often forced to apologise after mistaking Brooke’s tricycle for a regular model. “One of the biggest signs of success is when people haul you up because they don’t think your child has a disability. That really is a huge compliment.”

While he has always kept a relatively low profile, Haverkort is now keen to put his name behind the product and get the word out there so more people can benefit from the trikes. While the original concept was quite rudimentary, after more than a decade the design is thoroughly tested. “I’m quite proud of the standard and finish we’re bringing out.”

Last year he embarked on a successful pilot project with the Cerebral Palsy Society, a revolving pool of trikes in four different sizes that operates on a lending system with a $10-a-month fee. “We were building them singly for children and the problem we were coming up against was that they’d apply for funding, I’d build it, and then they’d grow out of it.”

The next step is to build up stock and market the tricycles to other organisations, potentially expanding to meet the needs of children with other disorders such as muscular dystrophy or Down’s Syndrome.

“It’s about maintaining physical function and building on it. Any child that has a disability that can’t ride a two-wheeler but has the ability to move their arms and legs will gain from it,” he says.

That will require working on a whole new scale. Rather than cherrypicking from new box bikes, he’s identified a Chinese factory that produces the specific parts he needs and hopes to reach an agreement soon. Haverkort is also in discussions with Conductive Education—a worldwide foundation for people with motor disorders— as well as working on a tricycle designed for adult use. And when he’s done, there will be “a hell of a lot more bikes on the planet”.

He says it’s hard for many parents of children with disabilities to think longterm, as they’re busy enough trying to manage the dayto- day routine. But children like Brooke demonstrate just what is possible. “With Brooke’s increasing independence, we’re no longer in coping mode. We’re having a blast!”

And with Brooke on track to finish school in a couple of years, he’s in talks with her about becoming a salesperson for the trikes.

“There’s a real demand for this equipment. Children get a lot out of it; I’ve not seen anything else that fulfills their needs in the same way.”

Thanks to Pete’s Autos, Henderson

Story originally published in Idealog magazine #31, page 24

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