My Cycling Class Today: Teaching Students Who Are Deaf or Blind…or Both.

A few weeks ago, I was notified about a potential member who was interested in checking out the club and trying an indoor cycling class…and this person was both deaf and blind. I was asked if I’d be willing to connect with Andy and his support person, Gabby (who is also deaf, but is sighted), beforehand. Excited to bring indoor cycling joy to some new participants, as well as experience growth as an instructor in a new situation, of course I said yes!

First I posed a question to the ICA yearly members’ forum on Facebook, asking if any other instructors had taught deaf riders. Not many had, but I did get a few responses. Some folks replied that they had taught riders who spoke a different language so they had to develop a series of hand signals, and this was helpful too. Jennifer pulled up an ICA series on visual learners that offered some cues I could possibly use.

Over email, I learned that Andy uses pro-tactile ASL to communicate. (Here’s a video if you’d like to see how it works.) Andy is a cyclist and a runner. He has done some longer biking events on a tandem, and he has taken a few indoor cycling classes before. It was great to know that he already had some experience on the bike! He needed to bring Gabby to guide him around the club (though he also uses a cane) and to interpret the ride. She is new to indoor cycling; I think Andy has a secret plan to get her hooked so he can ride more!

I gave Andy the basics on how I teach: I use the Schwinn four-zone system where Zone 1 is easy, Zone 2 is moderate, Zone 3 is hard, and Zone 4 is very hard/anaerobic. Because I already knew he was a cyclist, I did a little digging to find out if he was familiar with power and using FTP, but it turned out that he was more familiar with rate of perceived exertion (RPE), and that works just fine in my class.

After exchanging a few emails, Andy and I also had a phone conversation (via an interpreter) to clarify some of the things we had discussed. He had questions about the kind of bike we have at the club (Keiser) and I got to tell him about the room setup and that it would be fine to have Gabby next to me and Andy next to her so the communication could move down the line.

Before the day of the class, I emailed Andy an outline of the ride profile I was planning to use. I decided Jennifer’s Back-to-Back 3-2-1 Intervals ride would work well because it is very structured and offers time in all the working zones (I cue the progression of intensity as Zone 2, Zone 3, and Zone 4—a little differently than ICA’s method but pretty close). Andy shared this outline with Gabby so she could anticipate what was coming next and give him cues in addition to me signaling to them.

I also asked Andy if it would be OK if I introduced him and Gabby at the start of class. I promised not to make a big deal or embarrass them, but I did want the other riders that day to be welcoming and to know that I’d be doing a bit of signing and signaling, and that Gabby and Andy would be communicating with tactile ASL. Andy said they didn’t want to be in the spotlight but were fine with a quick intro.

It was a lot of preparation and communication beforehand, but I have to say I was so glad we had those two weeks. I felt like even with that time we barely scratched the surface of what I needed to know to instruct them well.

The day of their visit arrived and we planned to meet in the cycling studio 15 minutes before class to get them set up and go over a few visual cues. It was great to finally get acquainted in person! Andy had printed out the class outline and Gabby was prepared with that on a clipboard, which we rested on her handlebars. They showed me how to sign what zone we were in by doing an ASL “Z” (drawing a Z in the air) and then signing the number afterward. It is important to sign the number 3 with index finger, middle finger, and thumb, because putting up three fingers means the number 6—Andy jokingly mimicked a knife across the throat to show me that telling him to go to Zone 6 would be crazy!

We positioned our three bikes fairly close to each other so that Gabby could see the rpm readout on my console and make sure Andy was going at the correct pace. We also agreed that periodically we could check in and I would point to where we were on Gabby’s class outline so they knew if they were following accurately.

The class went really well. Though we’d gone through all of that preparation, there was also a part of my mind that thought I must simply teach the class and see what emerged as things I needed to know for the future. For example, I discovered there were a few more signs I wanted to use—maybe “R” for resistance and “S” for speed, how to say “increase” or “decrease,” and how to indicate how much time is left before we change something (either in seconds or minutes, or the very useful sign for “soon”!). I’ve got lots of ideas about this and will get input from them.

It was also interesting for me to see how it worked to balance communicating with Andy and Gabby alongside the other members of the class. I think I handled this OK and would probably get better at it with practice, but I did feel like my brain was on overdrive trying to manage multiple tasks. I would be interested in figuring out how to convey at least some of the other things I say during the ride—like how a particular intensity should feel in the legs and lungs, or other motivational cues. If I were to teach a more mixed-terrain or freestyle profile like a Tour de France stage where there were frequent, less predictable changes, we’d likely have to do even more communicating beforehand.

Andy and I had arranged that we’d check in afterward about how the class went via email, but before he and Gabby left I gave them a questioning look and a thumbs-up to ask if it had been OK. They both smiled big and gave thumbs-ups back…and then Andy gave me a hug. What a great feeling!

When we emailed a couple days later, both Andy and Gabby said they’d enjoyed the class (Andy’s legs were beaming!), and we went over a few things to do in preparation for next time (like me learning the signs I mentioned earlier).

They are planning to come again next month!



  1. I used to have a rider who is deaf. He used to sit in front of me, and we created our own signs for things. I really loved having him in my classes and it taught me how to use visuals for words. Like you, I loved the opportunity to provide an all inclusive class.

    1. Author

      This is great, Basia! Can you tell me some of the signs you used? I am still building my repertoire and it would be great to know what worked for another instructor. 🙂

  2. I was in the class. Shari did a fabulous job, So great to see the special needs couple having a great work out and returning for a second class. Shari is just the best.

    1. Author

      It means a lot to receive this comment from one of my regulars. Thanks, Jim! 🙂

  3. Your willingness to go the extra mile speaks volumes about you as an instructor and as a person. Thank you.

    1. Author

      What a kind thing to say. Thanks, Bill.

  4. Incredible and good for you. Great reading and learning from this.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Renee!

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