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Snowfall Makes Mobility Nearly Impossible For Wheelchair Users

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More than 30 inches of snow have fallen on Champaign-Urbana this winter. Too often in this weather, property owners neglect shoveling city sidewalks. That can make it nearly impossible for some people to get around safely, including those who use a wheelchair or have trouble seeing well.

On a windy and cold Sunday afternoon, just a few days after a January snow storm, U of I student sophomore Meredith Bradford trudged through snow and ice-covered sidewalks in her power wheelchair.

“On the first day of school on this exact sidewalk that we’re gonna end up on was completely covered in ice and I slipped off of it and I had to have some random person help me get up again back onto the sidewalk,” Bradford said.

Champaign and Urbana both have ordinances that require property owners to clear sidewalks, but it only applies if they are located in certain districts, such as the downtown areas. That creates a problem for some people with a disability, like Bradford.

Bradford cannot get around too easily in her wheelchair on snow- and ice-covered pathways. The low-traction wheels are not well-suited for sidewalks with any snow or ice cover.

“I just hope that cars see me,” said U of I senior Stephanie Zaia, who also uses a power-wheelchair.

Zaia has a different strategy when she cannot make it over a sidewalk.

 “I would rather drive on the street than the sidewalks or the crosswalks,” she explained. “If it was up to me, I would drive in the middle of the road because people could see me there and it feels safer, at least in my mind.”

Zaia said she does that to keep from sliding off the sidewalks. As she walked in the windy cold, it took a couple of minutes for her to make it back onto the sidewalk without tipping over.

“Watch out,” she said.

Generally, Urbana and Champaign don’t issue notices to clear sidewalks in the snow-removal districts until at least two inches of snow, or any amount of ice, accumulates. But Kris Koester with Champaign’s Public Works department said the city could revise the policy if the conditions are bad enough.

Separate from the two cities, the U of I takes care of its own sidewalks and pathways. That does not include fraternity and sorority house that are adjacent to sidewalks.

Urbana enacted its snow-removal ordinance two years ago. Jason Arrasmith, the city’s environmental compliance officer, said if he can see people made an effort to clear sidewalks adjacent to their property, he will not issue them a fine.

 “We kind of hoped that people would comply on their own and be helpful and kind of take care of it, just in general, help each other out,” Arrasmith said. “And that’s more of what we try to educate and teach people that ‘Hey it only takes you another five or ten minutes. Clear the sidewalks out front and make it easier for your neighbors and those that need to get around.’”

The ordinance is still new, Arrasmith said, but he admitted it could be better.

Sheila Schneider, who has a visual impairment that all-but-eliminates her peripheral vision, said she agreed. She said that kind of neighborly camaraderie she would like does not carry over in either Champaign or Urbana.

“I live in West Champaign, and they’re absolutely hideous. Nobody shovels their sidewalks at all,” Schneider said.

Because the cities don’t have the personnel or revenue available to broaden the areas where the ordinance can be enforced, the responsibility remains with property owners.

U of I student Stephanie Zaia said that can be a real issue for her, especially when she has to sit holed up in her dorm room until enough of the snow is gone.

“It’s just frustrating because I don’t think that people that realize that when they shovel the snow that they realize how much we need it shoveled or even if they can shovel it as much as we need it,” Zaia said. “We need it clear.”

Categories: Disabilities, Environment