5 ways to support people with disabilities in the winter

Like others, I prepared for the most recent snow. I stocked up on the essentials, knowing I would be snowed in for days. The positive was that the snow wouldn’t keep me from my work. I didn't have to worry about how much snow had fallen or if parking spaces, parking lots, curb cuts, and ramps were clear. I didn't even have to layer up. Working from home has its benefits. 

I couldn't always say that, though. For years, I navigated snowy hills while wheeling around on a college campus. Using a manual wheelchair, I went through many wet and snow-soaked gloves. It wasn't good. Snow always won, and I had to get to class rolling up sidewalks packed with freshly fallen snow, rolling into snow banks head first because my wheelchair lost control, and crossing streets with curb cuts full of ice and snow. I am so glad those days are behind me and I have a car to get around, but there are always challenges when it comes to snow, people, and public travel paths. 

I remind everyone I know about what they can do to lessen these challenges. Don't plow snow into accessible parking spaces, remove snow and ice from curb cuts, and shovel your entryways into public spaces. But that's not enough. What about those with and without disabilities who rely on public transportation, those without a vehicle or who are unable to drive — or those like me all those years ago when I relied on a wheelchair to get to and from my job and classes?

Snow removal a community issue

As I ventured out after our most recent snowfall and rain, I noticed snow-covered sidewalks, untouched curb cuts, and narrow walkways. I was conflicted. I'm glad I didn't have to deal with that daily, but I also was concerned for those who have to navigate those obstacles every day without a choice. We must advocate for snow removal from sidewalks, bus stops, curb cuts, and travel paths. It's not just a disability issue but a community issue for everyone.

Snow removal is crucial for people with disabilities as it ensures safe and accessible pathways. But let's go beyond this: It's a vital issue for people who rely on walking, rolling, and strolling. Clear sidewalks and roads make it easier for people with mobility aids such as wheelchairs or walkers to navigate. Clearing snow promotes independence and reduces barriers to mobility. It also helps those with sensory or balance concerns move around safely during the winter. 

So what can you do? Here are some tips. 

1. Please clear the sidewalks. It's helpful for those with vision loss or balance issues. One of my friends with vision loss told me when a sidewalk that was there suddenly disappears, and you may not see that until you walk into it, it becomes a what-do-I-do-now scenario. 

2. Look at curb cuts. Can you cross the street without walking or rolling over snow and ice? Snow and ice pack up in these areas because plows dump a lot of snow, and sometimes those shoveling forget this area needs attention, too. 

3. Bus stops. It's tricky, because I'm not sure if the city or our local transportation authority is in charge of these areas. However, I have seen organizations create volunteer programs to help with this need. If you live near a bus stop and are clearing your sidewalk anyway, take a few minutes and clear a path at the bus stop. If you're interested in starting a program such as this, contact me, and I'd love to help! Or reach out to a community organization of your choice and see if they'd like to spearhead such a project.

4. Be mindful of entrances to homes and public spaces. I'm sure Door Dashers will agree that a clear path of travel from the driveway or parking lot makes their work much more manageable. Snow and ice are hazards. Also, winter can get dark; keep that outside light on when expecting someone. A well-lit entry makes all the difference.

5. Be neighborly. We all need assistance at one point or another. If you see someone struggling, asking if you can help is OK. However, don't get offended or insist if the person says no. If someone says yes, then ask how you can help. I'm always up for a free hand if I'm struggling, but I don't want to be tipped out of my wheelchair or thrown off balance. I will gladly let someone know how to help me maneuver over challenging terrain.

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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Read more articles by Lucia Rios.