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Riding along the canal and raising awareness

After proclamations and cheers at a 9 a.m. ceremony today in Niawanda Park in the City of Tonawanda, John Robinson and Doug Hamlin of Skaneateles will climb aboard their specially adapted three-wheeled recumbent bicycles and pedal off to Albany along the Erie Canal.

They expect to arrive in the state capital in 12 days, a daunting challenge, especially since Robinson and Hamlin do not have normal use of their legs. They pedal with their arms.

Robinson, in his mid 40s, was born without elbows, forearms, wrists, hands, knees or thighs. Hamlin, a few years older, has used a wheelchair ever since he suffered a broken neck in a trampoline accident in 1983.

This won’t be their first trip along the Erie Canalway Trail. They did it last year in 17 days. This time they have new bikes with 27 gears. They will be accompanied by about 30 other riders, including Robinson’s wife, Andrea, and his two younger children.

“Now we’re doing it in 12 days instead of 17 and we’re really proud of that,” Robinson said Sunday evening from a friend’s home in Snyder. “Doug’s been training four months on his and I’ve been training for a month on mine. The one thing we learned last year, we need to get up and over hills. We had to push up the hills or get pushed.”

Their “Journey Along the Erie Canal II” is intended to raise awareness of what people with disabilities can accomplish.

Supporting them along the way will be the local chapters of NYSARC, the largest organization serving people with developmental and physical disabilities, which is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year.

“We should have a couple-hundred people to say goodbye to us in Tonawanda,” Robinson said. “Then we’ll do it again Tuesday in Medina.”

The bike ride is the latest in a string of accomplishments that began when Robinson was a child. A graduate of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications, he had a career in public broadcasting in Albany.

He carried the torch for the 2002 Winter Olympics as it passed through Albany and was the subject of a 2009 PBS documentary, “Get Off Your Knees,” which chronicled his independent lifestyle. He published an autobiography with the same title.

Now a motivational speaker and advocate for the disabled, Robinson joined with Hamlin, retired owner of a software company, in creating Our Ability Inc., which works with companies to promote hiring the handicapped and provides encouragement for disabled people.

“We care very deeply about all people with disabilities,” Robinson said. “The toughest part of last year was the emotional part of pushing yourself so hard and understanding how you’re carrying a torch for others.”