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Local group designs, fits bikes for those with special needs

Veronica Perry initially had a bit of difficulty climbing onto the bicycle that had been designed just for her. But as technicians at a bike clinic for people with disabilities put finishing touches on her three-wheeler, Veronica stayed put, eager for her first spin.

The 21-year-old city resident with Down syndrome was among 10 recipients Saturday of bikes made for them by V-LINC, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that builds products for adults and children with special needs.

Saturday's event marked the fourth bike clinic for V-LINC, which builds bicycles from scratch. Each is custom-fitted, with occupational and physical therapists assisting with specifications.

V-LINC was founded 15 years ago as a merger between the organizations Learning Independence Through Computers (LINC) and Volunteers for Medical Engineering (VME), both of which served people with disabilities in Maryland.

"We take requests all year round for people with disabilities who can't get something commercial for themselves or their children," said Theo Pinette, executive director of V-LINC. "They want something … to be more independent, to have fun, to have a more satisfying life."

Making a custom-fitted bike takes about three months.

Pinette said once the organization receives a request, its volunteers (who includes nurses, engineers and technicians) visit each person, then craft devices around that person's strengths.

The custom-fitted bikes include seat belts, high seat backs, altered pedals, and special steering and handle bars. Riders also get helmets, and some receive harnesses.

Andy Conn, a volunteer mechanical engineer, said designing the custom bikes originated with students from the U.S. Naval Academy. "They came up with the idea," Conn said, "and we've tried to improve on it a little bit."

Conn said local high schools and the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the Community College of Baltimore County undertake design projects each year.

Pinette said the bikes cost up to $700, but families are expected to pay $250. Contributions cover the rest, she said. The organization grants five free requests a year.

Like Veronica, many who receive the bikes attend St. Elizabeth School, a Baltimore-based special education school. Veronica is about to graduate from St. Elizabeth, where she participates in activities including Special Olympics. Her mother, Paula Perry, said she aims to keep her daughter active and fit after graduation.

"This year we've been focused on her physical abilities and getting her into shape physically," Perry said, "so we could ward off things like diabetes."

She said that in addition to Down syndrome, Veronica has Moyamoya syndrome, a condition that causes blood flow to the brain to be blocked or constricted. She said her daughter has suffered several strokes that have limited use of her right side.

"That makes it hard for her to ride a [conventional] bike because she can't keep her foot on the pedal," Perry said.

In addition to the custom bike, Veronica received Velcro gloves that will help keep her hands on the handlebars.

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