Wheelchair users can face difficult conditions longer in the aftermath of snow storms. AP Photo/Mel Evans

A lack of citizen awareness, not to mention accountability, can leave some residents stuck in their homes much longer than others.

Cleaning up after a snowstorm is no small feat. While many U.S. cities see the threat of impending snow as routine, others are notoriously under-equipped to deal with snow emergencies. This lack of preparedness can strike particularly hard at wheelchair users, who already face difficulties navigating snow on their own.

Although there is arguably a certain logic to which streets get attention from snowplows first, the priority in many cities seems to lie less with individual citizens and more with clearing major roads for cars to pass. After the recent blizzard in New York, for instance, residents noted the juxtaposition of clear roads and snow-covered crosswalks.

Still, in most places, the legal responsibility to clear sidewalks and walkways lies with adjacent property owners. For wheelchair users, the options are often limited: In most cases, they can either ask a neighbor or local organization directly for help, or call their city government to request volunteer assistance. Non-governmental services like Help Around Town and Snow Crew allow residents to post job listings or request snow shoveling help as well.

According to Ben Berkowitz, CEO of SeeClickFix, which operates Snow Crew, this year alone has already yielded around 650 volunteer shovel requests in the cities where the service is offered. But only 120 of them—or around 20 percent—have been met. While Snow Crew’s services are made visible to the public via local governments and email lists, Berkowitz says “there’s probably more people that need assistance than there are to volunteer.”

This can leave wheelchair users—including students and working citizens—stuck in their homes for much longer than the average resident. I tell people to prepare for at least a week,” says Edith Prentiss, a New York resident and the head of the civil rights organization Disabled in Action. “Two years ago, I was in for at least two weeks.”

The problem lies in the parts of a city’s infrastructure that are critical to the mobility of wheelchair users, but often forgotten in the midst of chaotic cleanup efforts. Curb cuts and pedestrian ramps, for instance, are the only points of entry for a wheelchair onto a sidewalk. But even when these areas are shoveled after a storm, snowplows often pile the snow back on, once more prohibiting wheelchair access.

Alleys pose yet another problem for wheelchair users. In a city like Milwaukee, for instance, the government is only responsible for clearing “approaches to alleys” rather than the alleys themselves. In an interview with WAMU, D.C. resident Thomas Mangrum reported being stuck in his home for a week because his wheelchair ramp was connected to an alley. Without access to the street, wheelchair users like Mangrum cannot be picked up by the paratransit services that help them to get around.

Prentiss says she found herself waiting over an hour in the cold for paratransit service after a recent snow storm. She also recalls entering the subway and encountering a pathway so narrow that her wheelchair became stuck in the ice, hovering “four inches off the ground.”

These kinds of dangers are common in winter, given that property owners often ignore ordinances requiring them to shovel a wide pathway. In Boston and Salt Lake City, for instance, residents must carve out a 42-inch-wide pathway or face daily fines. In Philadelphia, pathways must be 30 inches wide, while New York requires them to be an entire 4 feet. Still, Prentiss finds that these laws are difficult to enforce in a timely manner. “By the time they get around to clearing all of these complaints, it’ll be May, and there’ll be no more snow,” she says.

To remedy the situation, Prentiss has a few suggestions for making landlords and property owners more accountable. Cities like New York, she says, should introduce legislation that allows residents to report shoveling violations by submitting a picture or video to their local government. This would force residents to answer to their peers as well as law enforcement, who would then be able to issue fines with greater speed and efficiency.

Prentiss also feels that cities like New York have to do “a much better, snappy job” at making residents aware of their legal responsibilities. To start, she recommends posters on transit and in public places that clearly articulate the harm that failing to shovel a wide enough path poses to wheelchair users. Sanitation departments should also hire coordinators who work on behalf of wheelchair users, she says. Having a wheelchair user be a part of city agencies is especially pertinent during winter, she says, because it “puts the human face on the fact that we’re stuck inside.”

Lastly, it is vital for city agencies to set a precedent for their local community. In the past, Prentiss has complained that New York’s MTA, Department of Education, and Parks Department are not always diligent at keeping their own sidewalks clear of snow. “If you see that city entities are not doing their fair share and you’re a small mom and pop shop, are you going to do it?" she asks.

It’s clear that cities could be doing more to address the needs of wheelchair users in winter. Even minor changes in local ordinances or small advocacy efforts such as posters and billboards could make a big difference. When the initial responsibility lies with citizens themselves, greater awareness of the needs of wheelchair users could and should influence how wide and how often residents decide to shovel their snow.

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