Pedalling a message of inclusion


If the thought of cycling more than 500 kilometres sends a lazy shudder up your spine, spare a thought for a group of 18 Australians who recently pedalled their way across Cambodia and Vietnam.

Organised by Disability Sport & Recreation (DSR) and supported by the Uniting Journeys program, the 13-day tour included nine riders with a range of disabilities. Eight used specially designed hand-cycles (trikes) while one rider rode a specially designed upright bicycle. The other nine members of the group rode locally hired mountain bikes for the tour.

Hank Van Apeldoorn, a responsible travel support worker with Uniting Journeys, said the trip highlighted that people with a disability are often excluded and limited by the barriers society puts in their way.

“In general most people with disabilities in South East-Asia are treated as second-class citizens with little or no incentives to integrate with regular society,” Mr Van Apeldoorn said.

“Many anecdotal stories suggest that the disabled children in families are left at home and discouraged from venturing out as there are very few support structures for families.

“In the case of Cambodia and Vietnam there are also relatively large numbers of individuals who have suffered war injuries or land-mine injuries.”

A study by the International Labor Organisation estimates that 15.3 per cent of Vietnam’s population (approximately 13 million people) has one or more disabilities. While figures in Cambodia are more difficult to determine, a 2012 UNICEF report estimated that more than 2 million people (15 per cent of the population) live with at least one disability. Land mines laid during the conflict with the Khmer Rouge have caused over 25,000 amputees – the highest per capita ratio in the world.

As the group cycled their way across the two countries, they were a living example of what can be achieved with the right support and planning. Accompanied by local guides, support vans and mobile toilets, the cycling tour made its way from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in Vietnam.

Mr Van Apeldoorn admits that even the able-bodied riders found the conditions challenging at times.

“No training in Melbourne’s winter months prepared us for the South East Asian heat, as we rode on some days when the temperature was around 40C,” he said.

“But we fortunately also rode through the occasional shower when the temperature suddenly dropped 10 to 15C.

“One of the aims of the tour was to show individuals and local communities in destination areas that people with disabilities can have increased mobility and cycle with appropriate hand-cycles.

“However, much accommodation and other tourist support services still have many disability access limitations.”

These issues were evident at many of the popular tourist attractions the group stopped at.

In what Mr Van Apeldoorn described as one of the most poignant experiences of the trip, one of the more determined tour participants climbed stone steps so she could explore the Bayon Temple in Angkor in her wheelchair.

In Cambodia the group also met with the women who make up the Battambang Wheelchair Basketball team, which was set up by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Cycling tour ‘captain’ Gary Connor from DSR is a paraplegic and basketball coach who ran training sessions with the women three years ago. DSR provided the team with wheelchairs and supported a coaching program. While the cycling group were there they took time out for a friendly game of wheelchair basketball.

Mr Van Apeldoorn said the cycling trip was inspirational on many levels. Not only did it open his eyes up to the issues faced by people living with a disability, he hopes it has highlighted to others just what can be achieved with the right support.

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