Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Special needs - death by car and what we can do about it

The Centers for Disease Control’s pedestrian injury page tells us that in 2012, "4,743 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in the United States, and another 76,000 pedestrians were injured….  Pedestrians are 1.5 times more likely than passenger vehicle occupants to be killed in a car crash on each trip…"

Some groups are more at risk than others. "Pedestrians ages 65 and older accounted for 20% of all pedestrian deaths and an estimated 9% of all pedestrians injured ...more than one in every five children between the ages of 5 and 15 who were killed in traffic crashes were pedestrians."

The CDC doesn’t collect statistics on ambulatory special needs adults, but if they did I suspect this would be the highest risk population. Special needs adults don’t drive, and they have to live where services and work are available. Getting to and from work by foot means more exposure to fast moving heavy metal objects guided by imperfect humans. Cognitive disabilities often means less awareness of high risk surroundings, less understanding of human errors, and more impulsiveness.

Which is perhaps how T., beloved by family and friends and community, was killed by a car a few days ago. My wife attended his funeral today, I’m writing while away from home, caring for my father. Our #1 son and I saw him about 3 weeks ago, T. was showing my adult son his home, acting as a mentor for our son’s transition towards more or less independent living.

The CDC’s has recommendations for reducing the risk of death for people who walk, such as using reflective clothing and a “flashlight” at night. The recommendations are not harmful but, really, they won’t make much difference. It would be generous to describe them as weak and unimaginative.

So what could be done? In the long term, decades from now, humans will not drive cars or trucks on city streets. Machines will do that better than the best of today’s human drivers. That will be a boon to all people, not least those with cognitive disabilities. I hope to live long enough to see that day — I only wish it would come as quickly as some imagine. It won’t though.

There are things we can do while we wait. Streets can be made a lot safer for walkers by reducing speeds, providing accessible crosswalks, converting 4 lanes to 3 with a turning lane (“road diet”) and enforcing crosswalk laws. We can and should push legislators to make those changes; perhaps there’s an opportunity to leverage the Americans for Disabilities Act to that end. It is a shame that, for political reasons, the CDC didn’t put that on their recommendation list.

But we can do more than improve existing roads and sidewalks. We can’t build autonomous cars yet, but we do have the technology to equip new vehicles with sensors warning drivers of pedestrians and cyclists and recording and transmitting close encounters. We can and should demand legislative action to accelerate development and adoption of augmented driving systems for pedestrian and cyclist safety. We should do this in T.’s memory, and for all the persons we love with and without special needs. That’s a recommendation the CDC should make, and it’s one we can advance to our legislators.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Special Olympics Minnesota: Athlete Leadership Programs

When he was in High School #1 participated in both adapted and mainstream school (ex: Mountain Biking) and community (ex. Minnesota Special Hockey) sports. His coaches have been some of the most important people in his life; what High School skills he’s developed came as much from his sports work as school work.

Even in his High School years, however, recreational sports were becoming more challenging. His teammates turned into young adults — a somewhat difficult population for a young man with a significant cognitive disability.

He’s in “transition” now (more to come on that I’m sure) and he’s almost 19. After a successful experiences with golf (state champ his div) and tennis (state champ his div) he’s doing more with special olympics. Most significantly, he’s developing personal relationships with other athletes, including role models who’ve taken on leadership positions in special olympics.

Which leads to our next project — engaging him in Special Olympics Athlete Leadership through Minnesota’s Athlete Leadership Programs. This won’t necessarily be easy — he has only recently shown an interest in helping other people and it’s still limited [1]. I’ll have more to say if he’s able to do the December program. If not I think special olympics will be very helpful for him as an athlete participant, particularly because of the role models who’ve completed these programs.

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[1] People with Downs Syndrome generally have more agreeable and pleasant temperaments than people with Autism — speaking as a father with much experience with the latter. Special Olympics used to be predominantly Downs Syndrome, but selective abortion is making Downs much less common. I am sure that is having many impacts on the organization.