Winter Woes

PN Online's new deputy editor shares a few winter survival secrets

First, I would like to say that after living in a very inhospitable winter climate like Minnesota for virtually my entire life, and more than 20 years of that while in a wheelchair, I often find myself using humor to describe potentially quite dangerous situations.

When people ask about my recent move to Arizona and want to know, “why?” I almost always begin with, “Wheelchairs and snow just don’t get along.” There are the obvious hurdles like getting in and out of your vehicle in a snow-covered parking lot or the annoyance of dragging snow and slush into your house. But there are less obvious safety and quality of life issues that simply will not change by the passage of accessibility laws.

Why don’t you wear a jacket? 

This question was asked of me often and the answer for me was quite simple. I found the restrictive nature of heavy jackets to be extremely cumbersome when pushing my wheelchair; so much so that I would rather brave the -20 degree weather in a sweatshirt when I made my dash from the van into the supermarket rather than roll along like the Michelin man taking twice the time to make the trip. 

Wouldn’t tires with a more aggressive tread work better? 

Of course they would but then I would have to sit in the laundry room for 30–45 minutes every time I come home to wait for my tires to dry. Instead, I used those practically treadless performance tires so I could quickly wipe away the winter pleasantries and enter my house without leaving a trail. 

Curb cuts and sidewalks always present a challenge for wheelchair users in the midst of winter. 

I almost always found myself shopping or dining out in the suburbs rather than the inner city. Suburban shopping areas almost always have large modern parking areas, while they’re not perfect they usually have better snow removal. 

One of my least favorite and most complained about winter annoyances was venturing out during a snowfall. You pull into the Target parking lot, put out your ramp onto that nice wheelchair access aisle and proceed into the store. When you return you find and inch of snow may have fallen, just enough to cover the stripes so some idiot parks on top of them blocking your entrance back into your vehicle.  If that’s not the case, then it’s the snow removal company that decides the access aisle is a great place to pile the snow, completely rendering the space unusable by most wheelchair users. 

Now remember, this is much better than attempting most inner city areas. I have a favorite hamburger joint in Minneapolis that I had resigned myself from visiting in the winter. The establishment has no parking lot, and being in a very old building, its entrance isn’t exactly up to code, but very doable in good weather.  In the winter, however, the city plows the streets making a nice continuous pile along the edge of the street. This makes deploying a ramp onto the sidewalk impossible.  If you drive a car and can get out into the street, you would roll to the corner only to find the curb cut totally blocked with snow pushed into it from the plows.  If lucky enough to get through the curb cut, you may very well find a sidewalk that was not shoveled. Two days’ worth of foot traffic has packed the snow into an impassable, icy, lumpy mess.  All of a sudden the Mall of America with its covered parking ramps starts to look pretty good and become one of winter’s more frequented shopping venues. 

On a serious side, winter weather can be very dangerous. 

A number of years ago, right before cell phones became commonplace, a tragedy took place in Minnesota.  One of the chapter members who lived in a rural area became stuck in his driveway on his way home during a snowstorm.  Thinking he could trudge through the snow the short distance to his house he deployed his lift and began pushing his chair through the snow.  His chair got stuck in the snow to the point where he couldn’t return to his van or make it to his house.  The next morning the mailman found him still in his chair where he had passed away from hypothermia. 

When you venture out in the winter weather, be sure to dress appropriately paying extra attention to the parts of your body where you may no longer have sensation.  Always have warm clothing, a blanket and a winter survival kit in your vehicle.  Be sure to keep your cell phone charged and in reach.  It can be very nice to sit in front of the fire and look out the window at your winter wonderland, but be sure to take precautions and use common sense when you and your wheelchair meet Mother Nature during the winter months.


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