Paralysis and Personal Protection

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on June 13, 2016 # Safety

It is no secret that we are living in a time of enhanced danger and threats of violence, both at the individual level and for societies as a whole. Watching the mainstream media or online news reveals that violence can occur in any setting, whether at a local shopping mall, at work, in a school classroom, on a bus or even while seated in the front row at one of the increasingly violent political campaign events.

For individuals who are paralyzed, or significantly disabled from any cause, such events can be especially worrisome.

A person wielding a weapon is unlikely to encounter much resistance if their goal is to harm someone who is paralyzed or otherwise hindered in their ability to respond from a position of strength; the characteristics of our disabilities may make it impossible to flee from a person seeking to do us harm, or even to raise our arms or hands to protect us from something as simple as a swinging fist.

Getting out of the house to socialize with friends, shop, enjoy the outdoors or attend events should not be activities that create undue risk. Having such "fun" should not require more caution on our part than is being exhibited by those around us simply because we happen to be using a mobility device; unfortunately, that diligence is often justified.

While incidents that might harm us can occur in any setting, at any time, minimizing risk should be an everyday goal. It makes sense to avoid "high crime" areas after dark, or even to stay away from nightclub districts at closing time as that is when inebriated patrons take to the street in great numbers. While incidents that occur in those settings attract mass media coverage, many threats lurk in our everyday lives that are not quite as recognizable.

Where to begin?

There are many different websites that provide information about how to maintain personal safety for people with disabilities. Some of these are posted by public safety agencies, and others by organizations that direct their educational efforts toward people who have specific disabilities that might make them more vulnerable.

How about a gun? In April 2013 I wrote an Everyday Advocacy column for New Mobility magazine about the pros and cons of people with paralysis using guns for self protection. While there are many people with good upper body dexterity and arm strength who can do so safely, my column was answering a question from someone with a cervical spinal cord injury. In my response I pointed out several other ways to improve overall safety without the risk of someone using a firearm in a manner that had not been anticipated or desired.

Avoiding harm and protecting our belongings during a normal workday might be as simple as substituting a laptop briefcase or folio for a knapsack or purse hanging on the back of a wheelchair during commutes on buses or trains. During rush hours it is common for these conveyances to be packed with "standing room only" passengers who can easily rifle through a backpack or exposed purse to extract identification, money, medications or other items without anyone noticing what they are up to.

With the recent trend of stealing smartphone data or credit card information without actually touching a device, it makes sense to keep only the information that is absolutely necessary on mobile phones. With more devices using Radio Frequency Identification it is helpful to keep credit cards and identification cards, such as drivers licenses, in protective sleeves or specialized wallets that prevent others from accessing the information from a distance.

Even if the threats awaiting in public make leaving the house an unattractive option, avoiding such trips is not a surefire way to make our lives completely safe. Surprisingly, the setting where many of us are at most risk is actually in our homes.

Many crimes are committed by caregivers or family members who have easy access to our houses or apartments and the information that they find there. They know our schedules, how our home security system works--if we can afford one--and the best times to enter and depart so as to avoid detection. As a former victim of fraud, which involved a friend of my caregiver stealing several of my blank checks from my home office which were then forged and cashed, I can attest to the amount of problems that can cause in a very short time.

Identity theft is a huge problem around the globe, and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid having personal information stolen in one of the hacker attacks on major corporate and government databases. My information has been accessed at least four times in such incidents and there was not much that could be done after the fact except to monitor my accounts through the three major credit reporting agencies to watch for any unusual activity. Fortunately, we are all entitled to receive a free copy of those reports from each agency once a year.

If following the suggestions in all of the checklists mentioned above seems like an insurmountable task, know that it is relatively easy to take a few simple steps that might have a big impact.

Too many people ignore the threats posed by neglecting to change passwords. It only takes a few minutes and change the passwords on your computer and all of your favorite websites; be sure to follow recommended guidelines that will make new passwords more secure than those they are replacing.

Next, eliminate items on social media websites like Facebook or LinkedIn that are most sought after by those who strive to steal our identities and open new accounts in our names; I like to refer to this as "cleansing our social media presence." Someone intent on stealing identification to commit financial fraud needs only some very basic information: date and location of birth, mother's maiden name, and a social security number. Social Security numbers are available for sale by the rings of hackers that have accessed major databases as mentioned earlier, and social media sites often reveal the other information necessary for identity theft. As an example, is the year of your birth available for the public to view on your Facebook page?

While at it, we all need to consider the safety of our children when posting on social media sites. Every time a birth or birthday event of a child is posted that information becomes available for future identity theft. Once they know names and where we live, by purchasing a stolen social security number a hacker can ruin the financial future of young family members as well.

Being disabled does not mean that life needs to be unsafe. Even if you can't afford a home security system or a bodyguard to accompany you in public, taking a few minutes to safeguard your personal information by changing passwords and "cleansing your social media presence" would be time well spent. You should feel a little safer once those steps are completed.

© 2016 Michael Collins