Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Winter Wonderland that Gave Accessibility the Cold Shoulder

Tomorrow we reach the two week anniversary of one of, if not the worst blizzards that I’ve ever lived through. Definitely the worst I’ve seen since I moved to Minneapolis seven years ago. In fact, it was the fifth largest blizzard in Minneapolis history, and the largest December snowfall ever. The snow started pounding the city on Friday evening and by the time it quit almost 48 hours later there were reports of 34 inch dump zones, whereas Minneapolis averages 48 per full winter season. I had nowhere to be, and would have cancelled plans to go out anyway, so I watched the snow cascade down from the warm comfort of my living room.

But outside all winter hell was breaking loose. Cars were getting stuck in ditches. Events were getting cancelled all over town. The front driveway of my building and my street were completely submerged in multiple feet of snow, which I’ve never seen. At a certain point on Saturday night emergency services and plows were called off the roads. A very pregnant lawyer I follow on Twitter joked that if her water broke she’d be having her baby on her bathroom floor, and she was probably right.

Nights like that leave me feeling vulnerable too. I found myself hoping that I wouldn’t need help from any outside assistance because it probably wouldn’t have come anyway. And it always seems to be “those nights” where something inexplicable does come up that requires someone to come out to help me out. Just the fact that I needed a PCA to show up on both of those mornings was quite a feat unto itself. On Saturday morning she needed her husband to drop her off to start her shift because their driveway hadn’t been plowed out yet, and when she left here afterwards she needed to meet him at the Holiday station on the other side of my block because he couldn’t make it back down my street again. It was ugly.

I ventured out post-blizzard for the first time the following Tuesday, playing the part of chivalrous wheelchair knight coming to the rescue of a pretty damsel in distress I know who was stressing over her first round of law school finals and was hoping that I would deliver her an old law school study book of mine. I was immediately greeted by a world of snow chaos like I’ve never experienced in my life. The ramp exiting my parking ramp had been very crudely and crookedly plowed just wide enough for a vehicle to drive out. The street by my building, which is normally wide enough to accommodate two-way traffic plus parked cars on both sides, was reduced to just one traffic lane on account of all the built up snow piles.

In fact, there was more snow built up all around me than I’ve ever remember seeing in my life. Everywhere I looked there were piles of snow three, four, and five feet high. A handful of parking lots I passed on the way were reduced to half lots, half snow storage. Just off the streets there was thick snow cover stretching from the curb all the way back to storefronts, front yards, etc. It was a good thing that I didn’t need sidewalks or curb cutouts to cross streets because there weren’t any. Where I dropped the book off I couldn’t get out of my van because there were four foot high snow piles covering the sidewalk. The only break in the snow for the whole length of the block was a two foot wide walk through space that someone carved out.

Soon after that being in awe of the wild winter wonderland gave way to the reality of how completely inaccessible everything around me had suddenly become. Snow is pretty and above all I always prefer having a white Christmas, but winter conditions can be a huge pain in the ass for wheelchair users like myself.  I wrote a blog post about my winter misadventures this spring, so I refer you to that for those details since my thoughts on the matter haven’t changed. In short, parking is difficult for various reasons (e.g. snow piles covering the parking spots, snow covering the parking lines and striped access zones), cold and precipitation can mess with mobility equipment, wheeling through snow can be challenging, with the constant risk of getting stuck on top of that.

But the difference between past winter seasons and this one is that not only did it snow so much early in the season, it was an historic dumping of snow to boot. In almost every winter since my accident the heavy snowfall didn’t occur until into January or even February so I had a chance to ease into the season. Not so much this year. The difference between the picture below that I posted from last year and this year is that the snow pile is about three feet higher and that spot is half covered, which means I can’t park there. Minnesota law requires property managers and owners to clear those spaces of snow, but in light of this amount snow, and based on past experience, it’s been not only a low priority but sometimes the spaces are left unplowed, or worse, they've been plowed in. If I can’t park I can’t go anywhere.


So the extra daunting thing about this winter so far, and ergo the extra challenge, is that thanks to Mother Nature I now find myself forced to live and adapt in a suddenly very inaccessible world. Snow has gotten in the way of most things that I want to do and most places that I want to go. Just the other day I had to drive a half  block to the Holiday station to get some milk because I would have gotten stuck in the snow had I rolled about 40 yards down the sidewalk. By default I’ve been forced to be a homebody more than I’d like. And that’s a very frustrating feeling. To wit: this article does a good job describing the difficulties that people with disabilities have getting out and about in public with all the recent snow.

More frustrating is that save for about a week straight’s worth of 40+ degree weather to get a decent melting period going this snow is not going anywhere anytime soon either. And 40 degree melting weather is probably not happening anytime soon. The Minneapolis area has been dump trucking excess snow out of town pretty regularly since the storm, but the problem with that from my perspective is that they’re not getting rid of the snow where I go most frequently. So getting out and about is going to be pretty tough for an indefinite period of time.

All that being said, it’s going to be a long, interesting winter. I can’t wait for spring already.


  1. It is easy to forget how much the snow is even MORE of a pain for you! I agree, cannot wait until spring! Although my son is loving the big snow hills so far...

  2. Yeah it gets terrible to get around. I've only been out about a half dozen times since the blizzard and parking has been awful so far. Thankfully, we are currently in the middle of a multi-day 30+ degrees thaw, but it will get colder again before even a decent chunk of that snow is melted.