Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring Has Sprung (Finally)!

According to the calendar, spring has finally sprung. And all that I can say is thank goodness for that! When winter hits many rejoice the return of the white stuff every year but you can count me firmly outside that camp. Sure newly fallen snow looks nice and the blanketing of snow serves as a nice backdrop to the holidays, but from my perspective the cold, snowy winter season can often be the bane of my existence. The reason I give it such a sharp qualification is because when snow and slush and ice are on the ground, more often than not it makes getting around outside and out and about in public a tenuous proposition. Sure that holds true for everyone but I'm referring specifically to getting around in a wheelchair during the winter months. Especially the harsh winters that I've faced in Wisconsin and Minnesota my whole life.

First, the cold and precipitation can take a toll on the mobility equipment I deal with, namely my wheelchair and my van's ramp. Every winter season I can pretty much bank on some combination of getting stuck with my wheelchair wheels spinning, my van's foldout ramp getting stuck together, and/or my side van door getting frozen shut occurring up to a dozen or more times. This winter in particular every single one of those issues hit over the Christmas weekend due to a freezing rainstorm. Having unimpeded side door access to my van is an absolute requirement to be able to get in and out efficiently, so needless to say it becomes a problem when rain gets in the door gaps and freezes them shut. Most of time the motor that makes the side door slide open is strong enough to break up the frozen stuff but every now and again it's frozen so bad that the door doesn't even budge, so I have to try to jerk it open with my hand on the door handle. If the van sits outside in the cold for a lengthy amount of time it makes the door opening and ramp folding equipment run very slow. When it's minus 10 out those extra few seconds feel pretty long. When the snow gets built up on my chair tires it can sometime cause me to fishtail on my way up the ramp, which is always a bit freaky. Usually, my winter technique is to line it up straight and gun it into the van full blast so the speed barely gives my wheels a chance to slip around. When the ramp folds up sometimes the wet stuff slides through the crack half way up the ramp at the folding point and trickles down both bottom sides of the ramp and if it's cold enough it can freeze them together. Underneath the ramp are small carpet pieces that were put there to prevent the ramp from scratching itself, but when they get wet and freeze they stick to each other like Velcro. The worst example of that situation that I've faced was during the winter of my second year of law school. It was hands down the coldest night that I've ever gone out: minus 20 degrees. I left school around 10:30 pm after six straight hours of having my van parked out in the frigid cold to discover that the carpet mats had frozen together, and thus the ramp wouldn't unfold. Thankfully the building's security was still on duty to help me out.

Second, getting around can be a challenge unto itself. My chair can handle powering through quite a bit of snow but it does have its limits when the snow starts piling up too high or is really heavy. The frozen slick stuff isn't too bad, and I actually kind of like it because it's the only circumstances under which I can whip some donuts. Otherwise it's impossible to do in a wheelchair. But the combination of the two is the worst. In other words, snow that gets rained on, or vice versa, that turns into hard bumps and chunks. Trying to traverse those can be really frustrating, and often treacherous or even impossible to roll over. When vehicle snow tire tracks freeze into hardened grooves my chair wheels get caught in them and it's hard to work my way back out. Often times I'm almost forced to travel their same path until I can shake loose. A related thing I need to be mindful of is getting the bottom of my chair caught on raised icy chunks. I have a bolt under my chair that locks into a box on the floor of my van so that my chair is secure when I drive, but it hangs down to within a few inches of the ground so if I don't drive over raised ice/snow chunks straight or if I end up "straddling" them between my wheels then the bolt catches on them and I get stuck in place. Often that results in my wheels spinning in place and I'm a sitting duck.

This past winter was the worst winter of my almost fourteen years of using a wheelchair for all of those scenarios. We got a snowstorm, then freezing rain, then another snowstorm, then minus degree weather off and on again for a few weeks straight. So those hard icy chunks came much earlier than usual and stayed all winter long until the recent spring thaw. Getting around was very frustrating, and to tell the truth I barely went out unless I had to. It made me feel like some sort of shut-in disability cliché but it was better than the alternative. This was the third or fourth year in a row that there was a local story about somebody with paralysis who froze to death because they got stuck, fell out of their chair, and couldn't get they help they needed until it was too late. I will never put myself in that position.

Third, parking, in a word, sucks. Winter time is the absolute worst time of the year for trying to find consistent accessible parking that works for my chair and van. Generally speaking, the threat of getting parked in by someone parking illegally, crooked, stupidly, etc. exists for me year round. All it takes is for someone to park within five or six feet from my passenger side door and I can't get in or out of my van. But in the winter time my parking frustrations rise incrementally. The biggest reason is that the snow covers parking spot lines as well as the striped wheelchair access zone next to them, so as a result people park over their spot's lines all the time. As I've mentioned before, I have enough trouble dealing with crooked parkers as it is. The related commonality is that people just park on the striped access zones because they don't see the stripes. Or in many cases they claim not to have seen them at any rate (yeah right). Does common sense dictate that between every two handicapped parking spaces there is a striped no parking zone? Yes it does. But during the winter people tend to be much more willfully ignorant to that notion. So during peak winter holiday shopping days, for example, parking in a van accessible spot always feels like it's a 50/50 proposition that I will find a car illegally parking me in when I go to leave. The "I'll only run in quick" mentality really increases and stretches credulity around the holidays and harsh cold and/or snowy days. But even a five minute wait for the driver to return can really screw up my day. Take a situation where there's extra slop and it takes a much slower more careful trip for me to get back to the van, well I only want to do that once, but if I find that someone's parked me in it can get risky to have to turn around and go back inside to wait.

And usually that's the only solution: to sit and wait. Otherwise few alternatives are timely and immediate enough. Say I find a mall cop and tell them that someone's parked me in illegally. At best all they can really do is ticket the offender and then call it in to get them towed. In that scenario I'm still forced to sit there and wait for the tow truck, which can be up to a half hour to an hour. More often than not by the time the car is actually towed away the offending party has returned to their car, only offering a quick "oh, sorry," if that. So the whole winter accessible parking thing is very frustrating and can often be highly stressful. Especially when I have other places to be and can't afford to wait until a car gets moved.

Another related frustration is how handicapped parking spaces become receptacles for plowed snow piles. Especially when they are adjacent to the curbed island at the end of the parking aisles. See the pic below, taken at a Cub grocery store. There is still enough room to park there in general, sure. But what the untrained eye can't see is that the snow pile covers the striped wheelchair access zone completely. Thus I immediately become unable to use these kinds of spots until after the big thaw in the spring because the piles are sure to keep getting bigger with every plowing.

So the next solution is to park in the spot next to it. But the follow up problem with that is that other cars often overcompensate their parking to avoid the snow piles themselves, and consequently they park over the wheelchair zone on the other side. The result is what you see in the two pics below. And once again the threat to get parked in escalates.

To get the full effect in the picture just above from my perspective you have to picture my van backed in where the white car is with no room for me extend my ramp and get out (again, the ramp is on my passenger side, hence the need to back into that spot) because the red SUV parked too far to the right to avoid the snow pile. I see this exact same situation in almost every parking lot I go to during the winter. It wipes out a ton of parking options for me. In a lot of those situations it's not worth the risk to park and get blocked in subsequently. The pic below is just a decent demonstration of how the snow covers the lines between parking spots. I tend to have expert knowledge about where they are even with the snow cover but most others don't and just guess. Or equally as common: they just don't care.

So with all that being said, I repeat once again: spring has sprung! And you can count me in on being one of the biggest fans of that. In fact, in the strict weather sense these spring months might be my favorite time of the year because the snow and crap that helped make my life an inaccessible hell are melted and gone and that's a huge relief, the temperature is warm enough for short sleeves yet not so warm that I have to rely on air conditioning to stay cool, and most importantly it means that my family's summer lake cabin season is right around the corner. I always look forward to those good times. Hooray for spring!


  1. Wow, the ramp manufacturer would probably appreciate your feedback about how the carpet strip collects water. Here in Alaska, we outfit our vehicles with engine block heaters. I wonder if there is an aftermarket add-on for your van that would prevent the ramp freeze issue you’ve explained. On that same note, does the wheelchair manufacturer make studded tires for winter travel? I’m trying to think of ways to make the winter season more bearable for you.

    Gunning up the ramp in slick conditions sounds really scary.


  2. Well I'm sure they realized that carpet piece underneath flaw by now. My van is a 1997 first generation (I think) minivan side foldout ramp van. New versions I've seen don't have them. My new van's ramp doesn't fold out but rather the ramp comes out straight from underneath the floor. I will write a blog post about it with pics after it's all equiped and I'm officially driving it. And we did order the block heater extra this and learn from the previous purchase.

    I've never heard of studded wheelchair tires, but that by no means suggests that somebody out there hasn't developed them. Changing wheelchair tires can be a pretty tedious and time consuming affair--at least with my old wheelchair it always is--so swapping out for studded tires in the winter wouldn't be ideal. Plus I'd tear up everywhere else I go with them. My power wheelchair tires have always had pretty good gripping power.