Navigating city sidewalks is unsafe, almost impossible, for people with disabilities
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/03/2022 (459 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Isolation during winter is a fact of life for many Winnipeggers.
This year, repeated heavy snowfalls have buried city sidewalks for weeks on end, forcing people to trudge on narrow paths trampled by trailblazers or climb over large windrows of snow and ice.
It’s a nuisance for most people, but city folk with mobility problems find themselves in a huge bind.
In Manitoba. 234,190 people 15 and older have a disability, data from a 2017 survey shows. About 40 per cent of that group has mobility issues and 22.1 per cent are visually impaired.
Accessibility advocates raise the issue every winter, and little seems to change.
They hope during this winter, which has been especially troublesome, fellow citizens and politicians try to understand how limited life can be when faced with such hurdles.
Brian Thorkelson inched his foot forward through the mound of snow on the sidewalk. Had he not lived there in the summer, he might not have known there was a sidewalk. His guide dog hesitated.
“The dog is totally not confident in guiding, because he perceives the snow mountains as obstacles and there’s no way to get around them,” said the 38-year-old who has total visual impairment.
The dog is trained to take the path of least resistance, but in snow drifts, he gets confused, said the resident of Quail Ridge Road.
“He’s completely confused and disoriented… I’ve even had times where I’ve had to pick my dog up, and he’s at least a good 75 pounds, to put him over the drift,” he said.
Thorkelson said the dog’s ability to guide him could be affected. He hopes the dog’s training will hold up until spring.
Taking a bus is a nightmare. Recently, a huge snowdrift blocked him from the bus stop on Sturgeon Road. He wasn’t sure he was at the right place.
After about 20 minutes of trying to orient himself (his dog was unable to solve the problem), he called a friend on a video chat to ask them to see what he was dealing with.
“They said: ‘You’re at the sidewalk to walk to the stop, but it’s just uncleared.’”
Thorkelson had to carefully climb, with his dog, over the drift.
This year, he said he’s fallen several times.
“It’s definitely a worry of mine that one time I’m going to fall and not be able to get back up,” he said.
“If it’s anything below -15 C, I won’t go out. I’ll just stay home, just because of that danger.”
Wheelchair users in Winnipeg know what it’s like to be stuck in a few centimetres of snow.
Peter Tonge said the tires of his wheelchairs, both manual and motorized, spin as nothing happens. He’s had to depend on strangers to help free him.
It’s no easy task pulling a person and their wheelchair from a snowy rut.
“Someone may come along and very genuinely want to help, but they’re not physically capable of doing so,” said the Grant Avenue resident. “There’s always that stress level of just getting yourself free.”
He feels that loss of freedom.
“I no longer have spontaneous access to do anything,” he said.
Every winter, and particularly this one, his freedom is limited by slush, snow or ice.
“It’s not the big things in life, like I won’t be able to get to the hospital,” he said. “It’s the little things, like being able to spontaneously pop around and see a friend or run an errand…. If the sidewalks were clean and clear, you could go: ‘Gee, it would be nice to have some ice cream with our dessert,’ and you can buzz out and grab it.”
Instead, Tonge is forced to rely on Winnipeg Transit Plus for most of his errands, which requires two days’ notice to book a ride. When waiting that long isn’t an option, Tonge can book a wheelchair-accessible taxi — but that’s expensive.
Last month, Tonge, who is the executive director of the Manitoba Wheelchair Sport Association, booked private transit several times.
“I spent over $300 in the month of February,” Tonge said. “For a lot of people that’s most of their income.”
In a 2017 survey, about 60 per cent of Canadians with disabilities aged 25 to 64 were employed, compared to 80.1 per cent of people without disabilities. And as disabilities become more severe, the employment rate drops. That means extra expenses, such as private transit, aren’t affordable.
Tonge has spent years advocating for more accessible sidewalks, among other things. Yet, nothing ever seems to change, he said.
Tonge summed up his experience with a quote he’d once come across: “It doesn’t matter what direction I turned, it felt like the wind was blowing in my face.”
Debby McLeod hasn’t always used a wheelchair. For about 20 years, she spent most days on her feet, rushing around Health Sciences Centre as a critical equipment specialist. But on Nov. 12, 2020, McLeod’s left leg was amputated below the knee due to a bone infection.
In these first three winters as wheelchair user, the isolation imposed on her by snow and uncleared sidewalks has come as a shock.
“Actually, I’m quite surprised. When you’re able-bodied, these are things you don’t think of,” she said.
Before the operation, McLeod never would have imagined being trapped in her house, unable to get to work, for three weeks. But that’s what happened to the downtown Portage Avenue resident in February.
“The sidewalks this year have been absolutely horrific. I understand that we’ve had an awful lot of snowfall and the city is having a hard time trying to keep up. But with so much snow on the sidewalks, it makes it impossible to get anywhere,” she said.
For someone like McLeod, who describes herself as naturally independent, it’s hurt her mental health.
“My inability to go into work very much affected me,” she said. Even just the contact with people on the way to work is “like a breath of fresh air,” McLeod said.
People don’t understand how significant the loss of mobility, due to uncleared paths, is for people in wheelchairs and with other mobility issues, she said.
“They really don’t. And I was one of them. You can’t comprehend until you are in the situation. You can understand, you can emphasize, but you can’t really relate.”
Stuck in a loop
Similar to Tonge, Rosalie Best advocates for more accessible sidewalks every winter.
“I’m getting a little tired of doing the same interview over and over again,” said Best, a power wheelchair user who works remotely for an accessibility consulting firm in Ontario. “It feels like every year, I’m getting called, and I say the same things, and nothing changes.”
She talks about the impossibility of moving around town as desired; about the increasing frustration; about looking out the window, seeing huge drifts of snow and feeling the weight of isolation as she considers the near-eternity (or so it feels) until they melt and allow her to live life with some semblance of liberty.
“It’s very frustrating. And it makes winter extremely long,” she said.
She also talks about getting stuck in the snow, needing the help of strangers to get free, and the anxiety of not being able to find someone — something Tonge and McLeod mentioned as well.
The Spruce Street resident said when she does get out, which is rare, for a doctor’s appointment or some other necessity, snow piles often block loading zones or disabled parking spots, forcing her to park farther away or in precarious locations. Then, again, there’s the sidewalk to deal with.
Best, Tonge and McLeod agree there is a lack of political will and public awareness about how poor snow clearing makes their lives so difficult.
“Because people are so isolated, other people who are non-disabled, or don’t have mobility issues, aren’t seeing people with disabilities out and about,” she said.
If people with disabilities and mobility issues were more visible in the community, perhaps the city and its able-bodied populace would better understand the problem, she said.
“But because of the snow, or because of whatever kind of lack of accessibility, it becomes this weird, never-ending loop.”
Despite advocates’ calls for a more accessible winter city, there is a feeling conditions have worsened.
Atlantic Avenue resident Tanis Woodland, who is blind, doesn’t believe the situation will improve.
“It’s slowly getting worse over the years, in terms of actually plowing the sidewalks,” said Woodland.
She has had to climb over huge windrows to catch the bus. It’s even tough to find the stop in mountains of snow on the sidewalk.
“It seems like it’s increasingly worse, seems like they’re cutting a lot of our services,” said Suzanne Jakeman, who uses elbow crutches, co-owns wheelchair-accessible taxi company Sunshine Transit Services.
Even though she has accessible transport at her disposal, just getting out to the street or from a parking spot to her destination is a struggle this year.
“I’m not a billy goat,” She joked.
Updated on Saturday, March 5, 2022 11:19 AM CST: Adds photos, formats text