By Sheree Hoddinett
James Powell’s life was turned upside down after a motorbike accident in 2009 resulted in him winding up in a wheelchair. Rather than dwell on it, James, who is based in Upper Caboolture, took the path of positivity and worked out what he could do rather than what he couldn’t. Not letting his disability get in the way of his passion for making the most out of life has seen James take part in bodybuilding competitions, bungee-jumping in his wheelchair, get married, start a family and even get back behind the wheel of a car. But there was still one he wanted more than anything, to be able to ride motorbikes again.
From a young age, James was a keen motorbike enthusiast. His dad also rides, and his mum used to, so it was very much in the family. It was inevitable that he would follow suit.
“I was very much bikes, bikes, bikes,” James says of his younger years. “That was what I grew up knowing.”
Following his accident, James focussed on gaining as much strength in his upper body as he could, in a bid for his arms to compensate for what he could no longer use, his legs. Not completely giving up on the idea of riding again, James started out on a quad bike, but there were many rules and restrictions impacting his efforts, including having to provide exact dates and times of each ride.
“I had my quad bike and I wanted to be able to ride it through the forestry, so we went through the whole rigmarole of jumping through all the hoops and I got it legally registered,” James says. “But every time I wanted to go for a ride, I had to give the police a designated route, talk to landowners, etc and it eventually took the fun out of the experience.”
But it was his determination to ride a two-wheel motorbike again that spurred James on to get creative. Using his background as an aircraft engineer, James was able to modify his motorcycle and get back in the saddle.
“My bike has a dual clutch transmission, so it’s an automatic bike and I don’t have to worry about stalling it,” James says of his thinking in the initial planning stages. “Then I had to look at the best way to stabilise the bike when I stop because I don’t have my legs to do that. I’d seen a few different techniques of where people had tried to hold the bike up, so using that and a combination of some of the things I’d seen working as an aircraft engineer, I thought I can actually make this happen and work.”
Using an actuator that talks to purpose-built computer controls, James is able to lower a set of smaller wheels that helps stabilise his bike when not riding. In turn, he can also raise the wheels when he gets going. It all works like the landing gear on an aeroplane. He also modified foot plates to hold his legs in place while he is riding, and the bike also has a spot to hold his wheelchair. He’s done it all in a way so that he can be as independent as possible but still appreciates help when it’s on offer. He describes the first few rides on his modified bike as quite a ‘surreal’ experience.
“It was all a bit bizarre in the beginning,” he says. “But it’s given me a mental outlet and that’s something we all need. So, it gives me what I used to have being on the bike and so much more now.”
Not only has James given himself a newfound freedom, but he’s paved the way for others facing similar circumstances. He’s relishing the opportunity to make a difference in the disability sector and help as many people as possible return to an aspect of their lives which they may never have thought possible.
“I've helped multiple people get back on the bike in various ways,” he says. “So amputees and people who are paraplegics, but incomplete, so they still can have leg movement. They can get on a bike and they can hold it up but they can’t change gears or brake or anything like that. So I was able to show them ways of being able to do it. Giving others advice on how to do things and just knowing you’ve made a difference, I’m really enjoying being able to do that and create opportunities that they never had before.”
It seems, this likely won’t be the last time we see something created by James. He’s currently working on another interesting project, so watch out for that one!