Snowstorm aftermath daunting for those with disabilities

Share story

John G. Smith
John G. Smith of St. Paul, shown here on Friday, Dec. 17, 2010, has been using his power wheelchair -- equipped with snow tires -- along city streets to get around after last weekend's big snowstorm.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Determined to get out of the house after last weekend's historic snowfall, Anne Skenzich channeled her inner MacGyver.

Skenzich, who gets around by crutches or wheelchair, turned her snowblower into a makeshift walker. But that stunt caused her to tear a chest muscle and landed her in the hospital.

"Winter used to be my favorite season, but (I) am so over it this year," said Skenzich, of Minneapolis.

Minnesotans with disabilities are finding it daunting, and nearly impossible, to travel even the shortest distances in the aftermath of the blizzard.

Responding to queries from MPR News' Public Insight Network, they described their struggles with unshoveled sidewalks, snowed-in handicap spaces, and rude drivers.

Have you had a similar experience trying to navigate the snowy streets as a disabled person? Our Public Insight Network would like to hear from you. Submit your story here.

Some have given up on venturing out, and say the worst part is the feeling of isolation.

"A snowy, icy winter makes the difficult life of a disabled person more difficult."

"Being sequestered makes me a little stir crazy," wrote Peter Flick of Winona, who hasn't left his house since the storm hit. "A snowy, icy winter makes the difficult life of a disabled person more difficult. I think the loss of independence, personal efficacy and human interaction is the hardest part for me."

Advocates for people with disabilities say city ordinances typically require homeowners to clear sidewalks within 24 hours, and within four daytime hours for owners of apartment and commercial buildings.

But some sidewalks remain trapped under mountains of snow, forcing pedestrians and people in wheelchairs to take to the streets.

John G. Smith of St. Paul, a self-described "stubborn, passive-aggressive Minnesotan," has been using his power wheelchair -- equipped with snow tires -- along city streets.

"I have become very fond of bike lanes," he said.

Many people with disabilities say they rely on friends, family members, and Metro Mobility -- a public transportation service for riders who can't take the bus because of a disability or health condition.

But Haddayr Copley-Woods, who uses crutches, said Metro Mobility won't drop off riders unless the destination's entrance has been shoveled and plowed.

"Who can guarantee that?" said Copley-Woods, whose friend uses the service.

A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Mobility, said safety of the customers is the biggest concern for drivers.

"The conditions over the weekend made it very difficult not just to drive, but to escort riders from the vehicle through the first door of their destinations," said spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge.

Kollodge said Metro Mobility travels through residential side streets and parking lots, and the drivers need to be able to reach home driveways and deploy lifts. The snow has made it challenging for the buses to reach their destinations on time, she said.

With more snow likely on the way, Metro Mobility is encouraging customers to cancel any unnecessary trips.

And then there's the issue of missing handicap parking spaces.

Minnesota law requires property managers and owners to clear those spaces of snow. Yet sometimes the spaces are left unplowed -- or even worse, they've been plowed in.

Lynn Solo said her husband, a professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, attended a required graduation on Saturday. When he returned to the parking lot, he discovered the handicapped space he parked in was plowed in -- with his car in it.

Her husband, who has a spinal condition that weakens his legs and affects his balance, dug his way out with a shovel that he keeps in his trunk.

"After that adventure," Solo said, "he decided that in the future he would not put himself out to attend events, required or not, in bad weather."