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Disability advocates begin a cross-state – and trans-Atlantic – bicycle journey

John Robinson hooked his elbows into a set of custom bicycle pedals Friday morning, glancing over at a growing crowd just beyond the Skyway.

“I don’t want to be anywhere else,” said Robinson, the founder of Our Ability, a New York-based advocacy group that promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce.

It was the beginning of a journey for Robinson, who was born as a congenital amputee without hands, and his friend, Doug Hamlin, who’s unable to use his legs. The pair embarked on their sixth annual ride for Our Ability on Friday along the Erie Canal.

Starting at Canalside, surrounded by a group of supporters, Robinson said a community has formed around the annual event, helping build a scholarship fund for people with disabilities to attend secondary school.

“It’s grown quite a bit,” Hamlin said of the ride, called Journey Along the Erie Canal. “If you asked me six years ago (whether) I’d be doing nearly 400 miles a year on the Erie Canal, I’d say no.”

John Robinson gets ready to begin a journey that will take him across the state and then across the Atlantic Ocean. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

For the first leg of their trip, Hamlin and Robinson will travel to Rochester over the course of two days, and then ride by a portion of the canal in the Albany area sometime next week.

They then plan on flying to Scotland to ride roughly 125 miles crossing the country along the Forth and Clyde Canal later this summer. Hamlin and Robinson will help launch a disability-access initiative while there, partnered with the Scottish Waterways Trust.

Both men use custom bicycles with three wheels that are set low to the ground. Hamlin, a Skaneateles resident, lies down in his, using his hands to pedal. Robinson, an Albany resident, uses his elbows.

“It’s very inspirational to see John and all that he put together, and all that he does,” said Amy Walker, an M&T Bank employee, who rode with Hamlin and Robinson near Canalside on Friday.

Our Ability, founded in 2011, works to reduce employment barriers for people with disabilities. The organization also lobbies the New York State Legislature on disability-related legislation, Robinson said.

Robinson said it’s important to remember there are 1.1 million people with disabilities working in New York.

The two were met Friday morning by a group of M&T employees, who cheered as Hamlin and Robinson crossed a small bridge and onto Marine Drive for their first day on the road. The bank helped organize the event.

Nineteen M&T employees rode with the pair for the start of the trip. Hamlin, with a pair of dark-shaded sunglasses, and Robinson, sporting a bandana of several Canadian flags, planned on reaching Lockport by the end of Friday, they said.

“Every year ... I say we’re not gonna do it again,” Robinson said, because of the amount of work necessary for the event. “But we’ll come back next year to do the whole thing, it means so much to the two of us.”

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