Wheelchair Users Address the Dangers of Snow

According to an article on the JJ’s List blog, a woman who uses a wheelchair asks us to spread the word about the need to clear sidewalks of snow for wheelchair users.

Wheelchair symbol on street with snow depicts person being thrown from wheelchair.
One of the most dangerous obstacles for wheelchair users is snow. With the risk of going off course, getting stranded, or being pitched in the snow, winter travel for those using wheelchairs can be life threatening. photo credit: ramp via photopin (license)

Blogger Nura Aly lives in Illinois and uses a wheelchair. Though a city ordinance mandates businesses and residents shovel paths 36 inches wide on their sidewalks and curb cuts, not many people do it.

The situation is complicated when street snow plows move snow off the roads and into curb cuts, which are essential sidewalk entry/exit points for wheelchair users.

After a snowstorm, Aly thought she could get to work two days after the snow, but her mother and a stranger had to assist her when she got stuck in an alley.

“On Friday, six days removed from the last major storm and after dozens of phone calls by me and my loved ones to the office of my alderman, the sidewalks were finally cleared,” Aly said.

A video shows how difficult wheelchair navigation over the snow for someone who uses a wheelchair. With snow a few inches deep, her wheelchair slides to the side and doesn’t follow a straight path, which could cause the wheelchair user to plow into a post, wall, or even off the sidewalk.

Large sofa sits on a sidwalk next to the curb cut
Assuming that a sofa wasn’t blocking sidewalk access for wheelchair users, snow could block access to this curb cut. photo credit: sofafree, lowrider via photopin (license)

The Realities of Wheelchairs and Snow Days

Another blogger, Anita Cameron, said, “Often, folks who use wheelchairs get stuck in the snow and must depend on the kindness of strangers to rescue them. This has happened to me and many of my friends countless times.”

“People sometimes make glib comments – ‘stay at home,’ ‘get a power chair,’ ‘use para-transit.’ Staying at home isn’t a good idea when you work and bills must be paid. Even the most empathetic boss is going to eventually get tired of the ‘snow excuse’ and you’ll find yourself disciplined or terminated. Contrary to popular belief, a power wheelchair won’t get through six inches of snow, ice or slush – the wheels will simply spin uselessly,” Cameron said.

Cameron said that para-transit is for people who can’t otherwise access a public bus. Since many buses are now accessible, para-transit wouldn’t apply unless they weren’t near a bus stop. Sometimes, access to the bus stop is also blocked by snow, forcing wheelchair users to wait in the street. Cameron said this has resulted in police stops to understand why she was in the street.

Snow plow shovels snow near man shoveling snow off sidewalk.
Snow plows can cause build up of snow around sidewalks. photo credit: Mine is Bigger via photopin (license)

Some people are training service animals to pull them out of the snow, according to a Daily Herald report.

Technology and Resources for the Snow

The Karman website has two technology recommendations for enhancing snow safety for wheelchair users.

One is a small set of anti-tipping wheels behind the other wheels. The other is a wheel blade that works like a snow plow. As with many items, for those on fixed budgets, additional wheelchair equipment may be beyond their budget or they may have to wait months for approval from insurance or rehabilitation sources.

According to the website, snow poses a significant risk for those using wheelchairs. “It can be a very dangerous situation if you are propelling your wheelchair on your own with no assistance. One little wheel slip and you lose balance, finding yourself face down in the snow. In some situations, you can start moving about in the snow, but after a while you will find yourself stuck in the snow you’ve been raking in front of the chair.”

The Smart Chair blog recommends snow tires for wheelchairs, a buddy system, backup power sources and planning for medicines and trips.

Creative Solutions

New Mobility Magazine, a publication for active wheelchair users, offers potential snow solutions in the form of specialized wheelchairs, additional equipment, snow chains, and homemade equipment. They provide links to videos showing the equipment.

Let’s not forget that people do what they are able and wish to do, and some people who use wheelchairs love snow and snow sports, such as adaptive skiing, snowboarding, hockey, and more.

Regardless of hobbies or abilities, sidewalks should be universally accessible to everyone, whether they use a wheelchair, are pushing a stroller or walker, are walking with a toddler holding each hand, riding a bicycle to work, or just enjoying the outdoors. At no point should sidewalks present a danger to life, as the bloggers shared.

Advocating for Public Safety

If you’d like to help, make sure that sidewalk areas and curb cuts near your home or place of business have at least 36 inches of access without snow.

If you observe areas of your hometown that have snow covered sidewalks and you live in the United States, let your City Council know. Locate your council through a link at the mayor’s office or directly. Type in the name of your city and City Council for search engine results.

If the problem continues, attend a council meeting and request that the issue be addressed. Meeting dates will be posted on their website, or you can call and ask. Look for or request the times when public comment will be taken, and then plan to share your input in 1-3 minutes.

For this topic, pictures would be useful for the council to review. Printed pictures would work best, as they could be passed to council members while you present your information.

Items brought to the council must be addressed in the future in some way, whether they seek more information, write an ordinance that the city must follow, or determine they can do nothing more.

You could also send an email or call your city’s disability coordinator, or if you can’t find one, then contact the council to address your concerns.

If you believe the issue isn’t being addressed properly, other resources are state and national representatives.

Contact Your Elected Officials

Find links to contact the president, vice president, U.S. senators and representatives, state governors, state senators and representative, and mayors. https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials

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