When one of the cognitively impaired students in John Waterman’s job training class was struck and killed by a motorist while biking to class, many people in the community blamed the student.
“There were those in the community who said that individuals with disabilities shouldn’t be riding,” Waterman recalls. “But the accident had nothing to do with his disability; it had everything to do with him not having knowledge and making poor decisions. It didn’t matter if he had a disability or not.”
That was 1987. Waterman was in his second year of teaching and decided to take action.
“I realized there needed to be a safety program,” says Waterman. So he set about creating one. That after-school program evolved over the next two decades into the Program to Educate All Cyclists, an independent nonprofit established in 2004 whose mission is to empower individuals with disabilities through cycling. It is the only program of its kind in the country, according to Waterman, impacting hundreds of individuals with disabilities every year on a half-million dollar budget.
PEAC holds a Summer Cycling Program to train youth with cognitive impairments on the ins-and-outs of riding a bicycle, working with over 200 students across Michigan and Ohio each year. The program is recreational, but the skills students learn can also help them become more independent.
“Our summer training program is really bike therapy,” says Waterman. “It helps students become independent and provides the opportunity for recreation. Even today, there are very few integrated recreational activities for people with disabilities. With cycling, we saw that this was a way for everyone to participate and enjoy.”
PEAC also works with SMART on an Active Transportation Program. Launched in 2010, the federally funded program brings staff into three southeast Michigan schools to provide pedestrian and cycling education and fixed-route training emphasizing walking, biking, and public transportation. The program impacts around 150 students per year.
“Since most of the students don’t get driver’s licenses, we really looked at the bus system, walking and biking, and blending all three together, rather than just looking at how you get on and off the bus,” says Waterman. “Not one teacher we worked with had ever been on a SMART bus. The problem is, they are teaching independence for people with disabilities.”
Now, some of those same teachers are saving their districts money by utilizing SMART buses for field trips instead of charter buses, Waterman says.
And in 2013, PEAC started training students with cognitive disabilities to be transportation policy advocates.
“We have gone from being a group cyclists wanted to help, to becoming a group that is helping the cyclists,” says Waterman.
PEAC worked with a group of students to participate in Trans4M’s advocacy day on Nov. 12, 2013. Students Stephen Lloyd and Cameron McGrie testified before the Michigan Senate Transportation Committee in support of House Bill 4866, which would revise the State’s Uniform Vehicle Code to allow for a cyclist to use their right hand to signal a right turn, while retaining the established use of the upturned left hand signal to signal a right turn. Proponents of the bill provided evidence that the use of the right hand turn signal for right turns is more intuitive to cyclists and drivers, is easier to teach children and those with disabilities, and has reduced accidents in states where it has been implemented.
“Some of the senators didn’t understand the significance and thought it was a frivolous law and a waste of time,” says Waterman. “After our students talked, the senators understood this was an important accommodation to making cycling inclusive of everyone. After that, I think the senators got it—that this law actually improves transportation access for people with disabilities. By these students being able to share their point of view, they changed the whole discussion.”
The bill has cleared the House; a vote in the Senate is expected before the end of the year.
PEAC students also met with legislators on House Bills 5080 and 4792, the "Vulnerable Roadway User" law, which would update the state vehicle and criminal codes to enact similar penalties for moving violations leading to injuries or death of bicyclists or other “vulnerable roadway user"—including pedestrians and wheelchairs users—like those already in existence for moving violations that lead to injuries or death for construction workers in construction zones, farmers driving farm equipment, and school children in school zones.
“Part of being empowered and independent is taking responsibility for who you are and what you want your world to be like,” says Waterman. “And it doesn’t matter if you face a physical, mental, or cognitive disability, or you’re brilliant. Everyone has a responsibility to be an active part of the development of who we are as a community.”