Physical Disability in Cities Where it Snows
December 20, 2010 10:28 AM   Subscribe

Having a mobility problem and living in a city where it snows: looking for tips, advice, and guides.

I do not use walking aids, but I limp, walk slowly I am very likely to fall on icy or slushy ground, and can't stand up by myself.

Would I be able to live independently in a city where it snows? This is currently a hypothetical question, but could I consider living in somewhere like Boston, New York, or Toronto?

I'm looking for experiences, or things to look out for, or individual characteristics of a city that would make things harder/easier. Currently I take taxis a lot of places, but in the future I might use a car, use public transport (if it was suitably accessible), and/or get a motorized wheelchair.

The problems I'm anticipating are first the entrance/exit to my home/apartment building (would there be places where these are swept/properly de-slushed?) and access to work. Then, there's the more general question of sidewalks and roads, shops/restaurants/cafes.

Background: while I live somewhere warm now, I grew up in southern England, where snow was only a problem a few days a year, and normally paralysed enough of the country for it to be ok to sit at home for a while. But there were plenty places where sidewalks were totally impossible for me for a while.

Background (2): I love asking people for help, and wouldn't be ashamed to ask a neighbour to help clear some snow, or a stranger to help me stand up when I fall over. But I'd prefer to structure things so that I could get by by myself most of the time.
posted by squishles to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have a friend who has CP who lives independently (mostly) in NYC. Our transit system is mostly pretty accessible. She lives in a doorman building, so she sometimes gets help lifting things and stuff like that. The buildings in NYC do a remarkable job, in Manhattan especially, getting things cleaned up withen it snows.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:42 AM on December 20, 2010

The problems I'm anticipating are first the entrance/exit to my home/apartment building (would there be places where these are swept/properly de-slushed?) and access to work. Then, there's the more general question of sidewalks and roads, shops/restaurants/cafes.

Here in Chicago, clearing sidewalks is the responsibility of the owner of the property facing the sidewalk, and property owners' diligence varies widely.

It would not be terribly difficult to find an apartment building whose owner properly clears and salts the sidewalks, but it is something you'd want to look for specifically.

Away from your apartment, I think things would be more difficult. Sidewalks in front of shops and restaurants are pretty likely to be kept clear in fancier neighborhoods, much less so in less-fancy neighborhoods. On largely residential side streets or on streets with office or industrial buildings which aren't open to the public, many property owners just ignore the law. Buses can be problematic — even when the sidewalk is clear, you have to traverse a few feet of snow and ice between the sidewalk and the road to board the bus.
posted by enn at 10:43 AM on December 20, 2010

From a Torontonian, albeit a fully mobilized one: the transit system is (ever-so-slowly) becoming more accessible. For stations and routes that are not yet accessible, there is the Wheel-Trans service which helps people get to where they're going.

While sidewalk clearing is sometimes handled by the city, businesses and residences are responsible for clearing the sidewalk within 12 hours of a snowfall - theoretically you should be able to get in and out of an apartment complex. Actual compliance to this varies wildly. I've seen snow cleared within an hour in certain areas (Bloor west of Yonge seem to have a strong merchant association that makes a real effort) and other sidewalks that never get cleared (notably those of construction sites, of which there are many). If you're in a house and not able to clear your sidewalk, the city will provide the service for you (but allow 72 hours for it). In general, well-travelled sidewalks are fairly clear of snow, but slush/water runoff/frozen gunk can make walking difficult for anyone in certain near-zero weather conditions.

Restaurant/cafe accessibility also varies. Older places are less likely to be fully accessible, especially downtown - it's pretty standard for restrooms to be on a different floor. It's easy enough to find out whether a particular place is accessible or not.
posted by flipper at 10:57 AM on December 20, 2010

Don't assume that big city = good options. I have disabled friends in London and New York that find both cities insufferable for wheelchairs and bqsic accomodation.
posted by kaszeta at 10:57 AM on December 20, 2010

I do not use walking aids, but I limp, walk slowly I am very likely to fall on icy or slushy ground, and can't stand up by myself.

I think that if you tried to make a go of it in a snowy area you would need to use walking aids because the danger of you falling multiple times daily during the winter would be extremely high. I am able-bodied and I fall at least a couple of times each winter.

As for the motorized wheelchair, my mother in law uses one and curb cuts (if they exist) are generally poorly shoveled. The plows push snow up on them and people walk all over it and mash it down, but it still is extremely challenging to navigate in a chair.

kaszeta is right, NYC is not awesome for getting around while disabled.
posted by crankylex at 11:07 AM on December 20, 2010

I have CP and, since I have moved to New England, can report that at least for me winter is mostly doable although there are a few days of hell. The first time it iced over I slipped and fell hard and a little old lady had to help me up and across the street. It wasn't that funny at the time. I usually fall a few times a season anyway.

It helps that my landlord is generally really, really good about getting people to come clear the steps. But public streets are hit-or-miss. Curb cuts, as pointed out, are hellish, as are buses at stops where there has not been a space cleared to board the bus, because otherwise you've got to climb over a few feet of icy packed snow, and I can't do it. (My past strategies have involved getting a lot of help from passengers to haul me onboard, as well as waiting in a nearby cleared driveway and figuring that the bus drivers who have learned to recognize me by now will stop there. That one works the best.)

I recommend buying the best, grippiest winter boots you can buy and wearing them until there is nothing white you have to walk on remaining. Also a cane, which I found really helped me with curb cuts (although buses are still tricky). You can get awesome retractable ice spikes for the bottom!

Okay, okay, I have to admit that I live with my girlfriend and she will drive me places, like the grocery store. Which helps a lot. And it doesn't actually snow all the time (it hasn't even really snowed yet here) and it's really only especially bad for a couple days after a big storm. Except the getting-on-buses problem, which is bad fairly consistently until the thaw, unless the snow removal people have been by to clean up the whole sidewalk. This might happen once a winter.

I don't know how much this differs in big cities, though, as I don't live in one.
posted by sineala at 11:32 AM on December 20, 2010

I live in Milwaukee. A friend of mine has CP and works, and she does okay. She uses buses a lot, but sometimes has to drive her motorized wheelchair in the street because curb cuts and sidewalks are sometimes not shoveled.

One tip - we had a scary incident a few years ago when she tried to drive her wheelchair through what we thought was a couple inches of fluffy snow, but it turned out to be harder than we thought and her wheelchair tipped and fell over sideways into the street. Luckily I was walking with her and could flag down a few guys to lift her up and back onto the sidewalk, but from then on she would check in with a friend after coming home from work to make sure she made it home (just a quick text or call) and invested in a Bluetooth headset. Maybe a system like that would work well for you if you're prone to falling. You don't want to fall and sit waiting in the snow for someone to pass by to help you up.
posted by christinetheslp at 11:41 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Accessibility in Boston's public transit system (the T) is still hit-and-miss - not all stations have elevators to the platforms, not all train lines or stations have been floors that align with the train.
posted by rtha at 12:12 PM on December 20, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for the answers so far, which have all been very helpful! The conditions of curb cuts and slushy sidewalks sound like they'd mess me about quite a bit.

How would other people estimate the duration of these conditions? If it only happens once a year, as sineala says, that'd be livable. But if it was like this for a total of much more than a week per year, I'd probably prefer to be somewhere else.

Re: walking aids. I've got a (mild) Muscular Dystrophy, which means my arms are pretty weak, too. Which means I can't make that much use of a cane/crutches/walking stick, although leaning on strong people is pretty effective in many places, but perhaps far from perfect for ice.
posted by squishles at 12:35 PM on December 20, 2010

squishles, in the Northeast, you're looking at months of winter weather. Last winter I felt like the snow was never going to stop. I don't think that New York, Boston or Toronto would work for you.

Leaning on someone while walking on ice only means that when the slip happens, two people fall instead of one. :-( You could probably get around better in the snow/ice if you could use a cane or walker, but since your arms are weak as well, I don't know how you would stay safe unless you were in a chair and even that's dicey in bad weather.
posted by crankylex at 12:48 PM on December 20, 2010

"How would other people estimate the duration of these conditions?"

I'm in Illinois in a smaller city; we don't get THAT many snowstorms, but the snow lingers on the ground once it arrives (and it's fucking cold all winter). I'd say maybe 8 to 20 days a year it's too snowy/slippery for my husband to bike to work. Usually by day 2 or 3 after a big snow, most stuff has been cleared, or cleared "enough." It would depend a lot on where you live, though -- I live in a quiet residential neighborhood where the sidwalks typically aren't cleared, because people just walk in the street, which has been plowed. Downtown, they clear the sidewalks quickly and fairly thoroughly and they're diligent with the salt.

(And, sidenote, everyone falls a couple of times a winter; someone will almost always offer to help pick you up. It's just a fact of life in snowy, icy places.)

Appropriate traction on your shoes is helpful too ... a lot of us just wear our regular shoes and slip and fall when we slip and fall. But if you wear ice cleats (you can get removable ones that go over shoes/boots) for ice, and good snow-weather shoes/boots in snow, you'll fall a lot less often.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:17 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

As someone that is very aware of accessibility issues and also having lived in Toronto I can state that Toronto is NOT accessible most of the time and winter worse of all. Outside Toronto is the GTA where newer codes are much more accessible without a large number of un-accessible places grandfathered in.
posted by saucysault at 2:01 PM on December 20, 2010

Living in NYC with this type of disability is doable. Best place to live would be Manhattan. You will not really be able to take the subway. I was able to get around on buses and taxis. I really preferred the bus, but sometimes they were so slow. I also walked a lot. Manhattan is great for walking, even for a semi-invalid. For a while I used a cane, which was good since people were more tolerant of someone walking slowly with a cane. As for the snow, in Manhattan the streets and sidewalks get cleared very fast, so I would wait until clear. Luckily I had a job that allowed for flexibility in this. Worst thing was the wind, which would actually blow me over!
posted by wandering_not_lost at 2:15 PM on December 20, 2010

Michigan here: Like several other posters have said, here the property owner is required by law to clear the sidewalks, but there are businesses and houses where it just never happens. More than a week after a snowfall, the roads are pretty good, but sidewalks have slush and icy patches. The bus often drops me off in a 2 foot snowbank that is just crusted over enough to break through every few steps. However, I have a friend who lives in the suburbs and has arthritis that keeps her from being able to walk far or quickly. She keeps her car in the attached garage at home and pays a service to clear her driveway. Because she has a handicapped parking sticker, she parks in the garage at work and has a short walk across the street in an area where sidewalks are kept clear. Around town, she can park at the closest spot. I'd say she's not happy about winter, but by driving everywhere she's able to avoid some of the parts that annoy me the most.
posted by SandiBeech at 6:30 PM on December 20, 2010

Our elderly family friend wore those cleats that strap on over your shoes. He didn't use walking aids either and was able to get out to the mailbox and such using them.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:43 PM on December 20, 2010

It looks like this will vary quite a lot from city to city, so obviously you'll want to look up some specific information for any city you eventually consider.

I think a city that receives a lot of snow is actually better off for you than a city that may only receive a couple snow falls a year. In my city (Winnipeg, or "Winterpeg" as some like to call it), we always get a good helping of snow. While it's natural to complain about the snow clearing crew, they are usually pretty quick about it (the entire city can be cleared in roughly two days or so after a decent snow fall; that's including all city sidewalks and residential side walks). That said, a big snow fall will make it hard to walk around for at least a day, even for those of us with two sturdy legs.

Unlike a lot of the others, we are not required to shovel any snow in front of our houses (city does that) and you should be able to find a neighbourhood kid to shovel throughout the winter and may have some running up to your door depending on the part of the city you're in. Most apartments (the good ones at least) have someone out shoveling first thing in the morning. Almost all public transit (buses only) here are "easy-access", but the bus stops may be a bit difficult to get around right after a fresh dumping of snow.

TL;DR: Every city will be very different. You'll be better off in a city prepared for snow.
posted by Kippersoft at 9:35 PM on December 20, 2010

How do you handle stairs? New York City has a lot of them and is, in general I think, not the easiest city to get around in with a physical disability. Living in a building with an elevator in a convenient location would definitely help but you won't be able to avoid the tight quarters and steep staircases all of the time. On the plus side, snow should be pretty far down the list of things to consider before making the move. Seriously snowy winter weather is infrequent enough that you probably could just stay in or take cabs through the worst of it.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 8:28 AM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: Dear all, thank you very much for your answers. Each has been helpful in showing what kind of things to look out for. This has been a substantial contribution to the ways I can imagine my future.

It sounds that I would be assuming significant problems that I don't currently have, if I went to a city that snowed. But there's super advice here about shoes, cleats, where to live, and what kind of areas are likely to be clear enough to make things easier.

(This is off-topic, as my question was about snow & ice, but people have commented: if I were to ask a question about the more general accessibility of a city, I'd ask not just about stairs and metro systems, but about the way people behave. For example: I currently live in Rio de Janeiro, where in many ways steps/stairs/sidewalks/etc are shite, but it's v possible to get a whole lot of help at many of the moments one needs it. I'm not sure I'd go as far to say this turns things from "inaccessible" to "accessible", but it at the very least makes the distinction not a simple one.)
posted by squishles at 5:15 PM on December 21, 2010

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