Liberty ARC clients ride through the parking lot at the organization Thursday morning as part of the fifth annual Journey Along the Erie Canal while fellow clients and staff members cheer on the trio and other riders.

By JOHN PURCELL

Recorder News Staff

Dozens of people cheered on disability rights advocates John Robinson and Doug Hamlin, along with fellow cyclists, as they rolled out Thursday morning from Liberty ARC with less than 50 miles left in their annual 370-mile journey.

Robinson and Hamlin departed from Liberty for the second to last day of the fifth annual Journey Along the Erie Canal, which is a 12-day cycling tour across the historic Erie Canalway Trail. This morning they were scheduled to leave from Niskayuna to arrive at their final stop in Albany. The tour began in Buffalo.

Six years ago, the two men founded Our Ability, a network of consulting, public speaking, recruitment and professional services championing the inclusivity of people with disabilities in the workplace.

Robinson, born as a congenital amputee without full arms and legs, said the annual ride seeks to raise awareness of the ability inside people with disabilities.

“Five years ago,” Robinson said, “our dream was to increase employment for people with disabilities in New York state. In part, our journey has achieved this goal. We have businesses who work with us and employ people with disabilities. It is a dream come true.”

Front from left, John Robinson and Doug Hamlin, founders of Our Ability, set off Thursday morning from Liberty ARC in Amsterdam for second to last day of the 12-day cycling event, Journey Along the Erie Canal.

Liberty ARC CEO Jennifer Saunders said the organization is happy to support the Journey Along the Erie Canal tour because it’s raising awareness about the abilities of individuals Liberty supports.

“Our individuals got very energized by being able to send them off and celebrate their ride,” Saunders said. “For them, it shows that if you set a goal, you can achieve it.”

Before cyclists began the day’s journey, Susan Brandt shared a story about a young family who had a child born without right hand in the late 70s and they struggled to find services. Near the end of Brandt’s story, she revealed the family was in fact her own.

Brandt said she was devastated when her daughter, Erika, was born in 1978 without a right hand. Their pediatrician had recommended a hand surgeon, who suggested separating Erika’s right arm into two sections to eventually develop a functional“pincher,” according to Brandt.

She said they opted against hand surgeon’s recommendation after talking with doctors and surgeons at a Shriners Hospital. Her child at 10 months old was fitted with a prosthetic hook after some surgeries were completed. Doctors instructed the Brandts to put the hook on their daughter every day, so it would “become part of who she is.”

“We watched this baby crawl on two legs and one hand and dragging this cumbersome prosthetic device for weeks,” Brandt said. “She eventually figured it out, but what she couldn’t do is use it or open it.”

The couple from Hagaman then met with a therapist and the director of an early intervention program when Erika was three years old. Brandt said they ultimately ended up desiring more for their daughter than the program offered.

“For a year she went to this early intervention program and they taught her to put round pegs in round holes, and we wanted more,” Brandt said. “At four we enrolled her into Project Head Start because they’re mandated to serve children with disabilities, but they didn’t have an occupational therapist, they didn’t have any services.”

As parents, Brandt said they believed once Erika entered kindergarten their daughter would receive needed services. The school district’s evaluation, however, determined her disability was not severe enough to receive occupational therapy.

Brandt eventually was recommended to contact Liberty ARC and talked to administrators, who said they had never worked with a child with a prosthetic device but they offered to provide assistance and services. Brandt said Liberty staff researched what services could be provided and helped Erika attain various skills to function in everyday life.

“(Liberty) never asked us to pay for anything, they figured it out,” Brandt said. “Their mission was to help this child and they did it. Today, she’s grown and she’s an occupational therapist herself, very inspired by people along the way who believed in her.”

This year’s ride highlights the New York Business Leadership Network, which is a coalition among companies statewide interested in hiring and building supplier diversity of businesses owned by individuals with disabilities.

Our Ability formed the NYBLN in December 2015 in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 executive order establishing the Employment First Commission to create employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The executive order called for 100 businesses to commit to formal policies to hire people with disabilities as part of their diversity strategy.

“NYBLN’s dual goals are to inspire those individuals with disabilities to achieve their dreams through education and employment as well as to educate able-bodied individuals about the differences in ability around us,” Robinson said.

Brandt said Liberty ARC and Our Ability get what is required to address disability services and needs.

“It’s not about putting round pegs in round holes,” Brandt said. “It’s about putting pegs of all shapes and sizes and making them fit in the community. They get that we all have ability and it’s just a matter of finding a way to use it.”

Our Ability’s partners for the cycling event include New York State Industries for the Disabled, New York State Canal Corporation, Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Price Chopper/Market 32 and New York State ARC.