‘It’s a truly unique bunch of people and when we go out for a two-day ride everybody joins the effort.’Orli Tal is an extremely active woman with a hectic lifestyle. In addition to working full-time as a computer programmer, the 45-year-old is a devoted athlete and an enthusiastic bike rider. She is also blind.
In order to enjoy her love of cycling and enable other blind riders to take advantage of the sport, Tal founded the Jerusalem-based Tandem Israel seven years ago, a group of 10 blind riders who together with their seeing partners explore the side roads of Israel in the manner only mountain bike riders can.
The first group for blind bike riders was founded in 1990 by Etgarim (‘Challenges’ in Hebrew), a non-profit organization that provides disabled people in Israel with the opportunity to practice outdoor sports.
“Actually it was me who put pressure on Etgarim to form the group in Jerusalem by constantly calling their offices,” Tal told ISRAEL21c. “Later on when the group was finally established I was the one to coordinate our trips, making sure every blind rider would have a seeing partner with him.”
However, two years later Tal and some other group members felt unsatisfied with the organization’s rate of activity and decided to form an independent group that would ride on a more frequent basis. Once again, Tal was the driving force and the organizer of this new initiative.
“Etgarim supplied us with Tandem bicycles but obviously we needed to have our own Tandems in order to launch independent trips. However, it took a while until I persuaded all of the group’s members to invest in buying their own bikes,” she said.
“Gradually, the group was assembled and this time we were simply friends sharing the same “bicycle fever”. Some were previously members of the initial Etgarim group and the rest were personal acquaintances of mine. What started as a small group has gradually grown as people hear about us just by word of mouth or are merely friends of the other group members.”
Tandem Israel member Inbal, 30, a computer programmer from Kiryat Anavim, lost her eyesight in a road accident when she was a high school student. Just like Tal and the rest of the blind group members she lives her life without letting her blindness be an obstacle. Originally from the north of the country, Inbal is a graduate of Hebrew University and the Hadassah College where she studied computer programming. She says that she’s always been involved in sports.
“At Hebrew University I learned from other blind students about the Etgarim group and there I met Orli who became a good friend of mine,” she says. “Although it was fun riding with the Etgarim group, we always felt unequal to the seeing riders who volunteered to ride with us. On the other side, Tandem Israel is all about friendship. Here I made my two best friends and met my husband, who joined the group as a seeing bike rider. It’s a truly unique bunch of people and when we go out for a two-day ride everybody joins the effort. The seeing members of the group are not ‘volunteers’ but equal members of the group with the same rights and obligations,” she declares.
Inbal said that the rides with Tandem Israel enable her to experience a feeling of freedom where she “can feel nature all around me. It doesn’t resembles anything else,” she says.
Debbie Pulick, 34, who often joins the group as a front rider on a tandem, says that she’s found the blind participants to be very independent people, both in their private life and during the rides.
“For example, blind members Dani and Margalit have successfully raised five children and are working and productive people. Dani always brings his guitar and in every opportunity we gather around him and sing,” says Pulick. “There are many seeing people who are more restricted, both in their lives and in their minds than them. These people are so determined that they let nothing stop them.”
Pulick said that being a front rider is strenuous and requires them to be in good physical shape, as many of the routes are not easy.
“The front rider also has to be a confident and experienced rider since he navigates the bike and every mistake he makes can cause the bike to overturn. Other than this responsibility for the safety of his blind partner he also functions as his eyes. I usually describe the view, the colors of the flowers and so on,” she says. “I honestly feel that as much as I contribute to this group I get twice as much in return.”
Tal is gratified by that thought, and has discovered an enthusiastic reaction from merchants and drivers she interacts with when organizing the group’s trips.
“Most of the time people are thrilled by the fact we are a large group that consists of blind and seeing riders, so I get good deals for the group. A friend of mine who has a big tender truck joins us and carries our bikes and equipment,” she says.
Ultimately, Tal sees Tandem Israel as an important avenue with which to integrate blind people into society and to educate sighted people about their capabilities.
“Some of my colleagues at work were amazed at first with my active way of life, but I believe now they are already used to the idea,” she said.
More importantly, she’s beginning to notice a change among sighted people’s attitudes toward blind people, but says there’s much more to achieve.
“While in the past some people would just come up to me and grab my arm without making sure first I actually need help, now it does not happen so often anymore. A friend of mine who is blind and married to a seeing woman told me how they walked into a shop once to look for an aftershave for him. The saleswoman ignored him and talked only to his wife until he spoke up and demanded her attention. I hope this attitude will change but it will happen only if blind people are active part of society.”
And Tandem Israel is setting them on the right course.