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Wheelchairs in the Snow Alas
Or, How Snow Angels Get their Wings

Jennah Ferrara, December 2011

Regardless of physical ability, no one enjoys the inconvenience of snow-covered roads or walkways. But wheelchair users in particular confront obstacles alien to those who travel on foot. Those of us on wheels face particular difficulties that un-shoveled sidewalks and blocked curb cuts cause in a so-called "winter wonderland."

As a wheelchair user under virtual house arrest during last winter's "Snowmageddon" for longer than I care to remember, I wanted to discover not only how my urban compatriots across the country confront the travails of winter, but also if and how different cities were attempting to address impassable sidewalks. (Neglecting to enforce laws that require city dwellers to clear the sidewalks in front of their residences is a nationwide problem.)

To set the scene and to help educate readers who might be unfamiliar with the yearly series of battles between wheelchairs and snow, I'll quote a passage from Minneapolis bloggers Sam Graves and Michael Sack (Two Men On: baseball, accessibility, Target Field, and more!), who explained exactly how "Snow and wheelchairs don't get along."

Wheelchairs need a smooth surface. When it snows, and especially if people don't shovel, wheelchairs can get stuck. People who use manual wheelchairs have a really hard time because they need arm power to get though the slippery mess. Manual wheelchairs can slide, making for an interesting adventure. Power chairs can easily hit a snow bank and get stuck. When a power chair gets stuck, it doesn't budge, and you need a couple of people to get it out. People who use wheelchairs often are forced to take the street to reduce the chance of getting stuck.
Longtime Chicago disability-rights advocate René David Luna, who drives a motorized Quickie chair that can reach 9 mph, offered advice about survival when forced to navigate down streets when there are no other options: "Go against the traffic, at least that way you know that they see you." Crossing streets is especially dangerous, he said.

Luna is a community organizer for DAWWN (Disabled Americans Want Work Now) at Access Living, a leading voice in disability rights since 1980. He explained underlying reasons for problems with access in the snow: "One of the important things is that there are some areas of the city less economically developed than others. The poorer areas have more barriers.... People don't have the money to buy snowblowers and pay for help."

Karen Tamley, Commissioner of the Chicago Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD), has been a tireless advocate for other people with disabilities through the various leadership roles she's had in the community, including director of Access Living. Through MOPD she's taken on issues such as the misuse of disabled parking, urging the City Council to punish scofflaws with vehicle impoundment.

With troublesome winter weather approaching, "the door-hanger campaigns encourage people to shovel their sidewalks" and offer help to their neighbors, Tamley said. The city mails the hangers to businesses, community groups and aldermanic offices for distribution throughout the neighborhoods. Brochures featuring new Mayor Rahm Emanuel calling for attention to safety in the snow are now available. Residents can also call 311 about problems caused by inadequate snow removal. "I think the city's going to get through this," said the MOPD Commissioner.

People with disabilities are trapped in their houses more frequently than their more able-bodied counterparts. Denver resident Brent Belisle, Disability Center for Independent Living (DCIL) Director, Administration/Senior Advocate, told me most DCIL members don't leave their homes at all during times of significant snowfall. Terri Adams from Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Center for Independent Living spoke of the "dread" people with disabilities face when blankets of snow make it difficult or impossible to enjoy independence.

Gil Casarez, an advocate for information and referral services at Denver's Atlantis Community, Inc.--"the second independent-living center in the U.S. after Berkeley," he proudly told me--described the experience of reaching a destination in the snow: "To get to bus routes and try to get on the bus, it's mostly trial and error.... When traveling to a certain location I have to check for a mostly clear see if I could roll through. "

And in the midst of compiling these snowy troubles, I learned about organized teams of Snow Angels who volunteer to help their neighbors. On the day it was released, I saw a City of Pittsburgh link announcing its own Angelic program.

Snow Angels to the rescue
The Snow Angels programs, formed in cities in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., match able-bodied volunteers with people with physical disabilities or senior citizens who have no other resources for snow removal. These organized neighbors-helping-neighbors voluntary efforts exist in cities such as Edmonton, Buffalo, and Newcastle on Tyne as well as towns like Greenburgh, NY and Bonner Springs, KS. The Snow Angels program in Calgary, Alberta, even won an International City/County Management Association 2010 ICMA Program Excellence Award for Community Health & Safety.
Pittsburgh is one of the most recent arrivals to the Snow Angels' fold, with the city having released information about the program at the end of November: "I'm thrilled they're doing it. It will be interesting to see how it goes--I'm cautiously optimistic," said Paul O'Hanlon, chairperson of the City-County Task Force on Disabilities and Staff Attorney for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania.

"Just sign up!" said Rebecca Delphia, chief service officer for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. "We have the most amazing culture of neighbors helping neighbors in Pittsburgh." AmeriCorps and the Mt. Ararat Community Activity Center have already pledged 50 volunteers to the program.

Delphia and Ravenstahl called on Pittsburghers both to volunteer and to request assistance. Pittsburghers interested in volunteering for the program (if able-bodied) or in getting help with shoveling their sidewalks (if over 60 or a person with a disability) can contact Volunteers will receive melting salt, brightly colored vests and snow shovels.

As is the case in many other cities, enforcement of snow-removal laws tends to concentrate on businesses rather than neighborhoods. City-County Task Force on Disabilities Chairperson Paul O'Hanlon describes the background to Snow Angels: "The story behind it, actually two years ago the task force kind of tried to make an issue of law enforcement and snow removal.... This time we asked the person in charge, we sort of challenged him.... [He told us] we enforce it with businesses...but the rest of the city we don't. It was the strangest logic I'd ever heard: you're not making up your own ad hoc rules! When are you going to give a clear, consistent message?"

To its credit Pittsburgh followed up on the task force's advice, and added Snow Angels as the seventh ServePGH initiative, among Sustainable Home Improvement Partnership, Love Your Block, the Redd Up Zone and others.

Residents can report consistently un-shoveled sidewalks and blocked curb cuts to 311, the city's non-emergency services number. "Even if you're a good and attentive plow driver, it's hard not to have that happen. You get to a curb cut section where it hits the street, and it ends up being a snow mound....The only recourse is to call," said O'Hanlon.


U.K. activist and actor Liz Carr makes a "perfectly imperfect disabled snow person" and creates her own "snow cripple." BBC, Ouch! (disability), Features, Let it snow

"Ouch's most horridest columnist has found something she likes this week. Snow. Find out why she likes the stuff that most disabled people find even more disabling!" Disability Bitch loves snow

On her longtime Disability Matters radio show, business leader and disability advocate Joyce Bender interviews Chicago MOPD Commissioner Karen Tamley.

"HALIFAX, NS, Canada--22,022 Nova Scotians in 130 separate locations laid down in the snow at the same time to create snow angels, setting the new world record for the Most snow angels made simultaneously in multiple locations"

Link to the Gertrude Stein poem that inspired the first part of the headline--in particular the city birds in this line--"Pigeons in the grass alas"

Jennah Ferrara