Winter can feel like warfare, especially for those with mobility challenges!

Winter can feel like warfare, especially for those who use wheelchairs, walkers, canes and crutches.

A Michigan winter storm can quickly render a smooth and clear sidewalk completely inaccessible for people who need assistive mobility devices.

Wheeling a chair or pushing a walker through as few as four inches of snow escalates the amount of physical exertion required. Travelers who are not accustomed to the strain are at greater risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Moisture puddles and freezes in low-lying areas of sidewalks, and at the spot where the curb ramp meets the road surface. Usually the ice can be seen and avoided. Sometimes it’s stealthy “black ice,“ multiplying the risk of a slip-and-fall injury.

And then there are the oh-so-annoying times when snow has been cleared from sidewalks and streets, but an insurmountable ridge of crusty snow and ice has built up in the curb cut after the plow went through. 

For those with a mobility disability, traversing that ridge is like climbing Mt. Everest.

Driving an automobile to run errands in winter isn’t the answer. 

Sure, being in a vehicle reduces an individual’s exposure to snow, ice and extreme cold. Too often road crews in urban areas plow snow into accessible parking spaces until it can be loaded into dump trucks and hauled away.

Winter warfare, indeed.

Here are a few tips for running errands, even when winter weather compounds your mobility challenges:

1.    Call ahead.  Tell the business you’re coming and you use a wheelchair. If the snow isn’t cleared when you call, chances are that it will be by the time you arrive. 
2.    Is there a technology hack? If using public transportation, see if there’s a website or mobile app you can use to check conditions before you leave your residence. Occasionally snow may be too deep for buses or vans to extend a wheelchair ramp or operate a lift.
3.    Ask for assistance. If the sidewalk or curb cut is impassable, you are within your rights to ask the nearest business or residential property owner to remove it. Cities are only responsible for plowing streets. Generally, property owners have 24 hours after a snowfall to clear sidewalks. If sidewalks remain impassable 48 hours after a notice to clear walkways has been issued, the municipality can hire a contractor to remove the snow and send the bill to the property owner.
4.    “Click and collect” shopping.  Some retailers, including the Meijer store in Jenison, allow shoppers to place orders and pay online, then pickup their order curbside. A personal shopper fills the order, keeps perishable foods cool or frozen, and then loads the order into the customer’s vehicle at an appointed time. With notice, stores that offer in-store pickup of online orders may also agree to bring the order out to your waiting car. No parking, wheeling through a snowy parking lot, or in-store shopping necessary!
5.    Mail-order shopping. Order online from Target, Amazon, Wal-Mart and most other retailers and have the order delivered directly to your home in a couple of days. You don’t have to go out at all! While perishable groceries are only available this way in some major metropolitan markets, this is an easy way to replenish your pantry with many staples.

Do you have any tips or tricks?  We'd love to hear yours, comment below!

You've got the question; Information and Referral Services has the answer

Knowledge is power.

Bree Austin-Roberts loves seeing clients become more powerful.

Austin-Roberts has functioned as the information and referral specialist at Disability Network/Lakeshore since 2013.  She receives 150 to 300 phone calls for help per month from people with disabilities, or regarding people with disabilities.

Here’s the common thread: A person with a disability wants to continue moving forward in his or her life, but needs resources to overcome an obstacle. Austin-Roberts tells them what local resources are available and can help them apply.

“Our organization serves residents of Ottawa and Allegan counties of any age who have a disability that may be emotional, physical, cognitive, developmental, or a combination of things,” Austin-Roberts said. “You can see why questions that come in to Information and Referral span a broad range of issues.”

Generally, Austin-Roberts said calls could be classified into the following categories:

•    Housing
•    Social Security benefits, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). 
•    Employment
•    Transportation
•    Education and training
•    Mental health services

Austin-Roberts said that when she became DNL’s information referral specialist four years ago, most questions were about Social Security benefits and finding employment.

In contrast, these days, almost 90 percent of calls are related to obtaining or keeping affordable, accessible housing, getting needed repairs, or replacing broken household appliances.

“Information and Referral is micro human services work,” said Austin-Roberts, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Saint Xavier University in Chicago, and is completing a master’s degree in social work at Grand Valley State University. “We often meet one-to-one with people to hear their needs, help them set goals, and track their progress toward achieving that goal.”

She describes Information and Referral as a “teach to fish” service. Her role is to point to potential community resources, and offer only as much guidance as the client needs.

Since most applications are now on line, how much hands-on help a client requires is often rooted in how computer savvy he or she is, Austin-Roberts said. 

“I email some people a link to a resource and they take it from there,” Austin-Roberts said. “But some people aren’t that comfortable with computers. They would rather make an appointment to come into my office where we can fill out forms together.”

Disability Network/Lakeshore’s own website,, provides quick-access “buttons” to email or telephone to the organization’s Information and Referral service. The agency’s phone number is: (616) 396-5326.

Austin-Roberts says a lot of questions also come in via the 2-1-1 Helpline, social workers at medical facilities, area churches, or partner agencies like Community Mental Health or Michigan Rehabilitative Services.

“There have been times I’ve received calls from three different agencies regarding the same family,” Austin-Roberts said. “They all want to make sure the client gets the help they need.”

While there local resources available – and, seemingly, more help than she remembers in Chicago – Austin-Roberts said occasionally she can’t find the help a client needs.

“It’s really hard on me if I can’t find a resource for a person who is dealing with insufficient income and homelessness on top of the challenges created by a disability,” Austin-Roberts said. “I work very, very hard for those people.” 

Have you got a question?  Not sure where to start?  Call our office and ask for Bree.  She can direct you to the appropriate staff member or community resource.  

Ability Award 2015 - Deb Stanley

The 2015 Ability Award recipient has a vision of improving the lives of people with disabilities by seeing them fully integrated into our communities…. working, living, worshipping and celebrating, side by side with others in the community.

Knowing first-hand what it feels like to be the underdog, tonight’s recipient has spent most of her life protecting and defending the underdog.  Experiencing teasing and bullying and longing to fit in but not knowing how, this person could only imagine what people with disabilities must feel like as they watch from the outside.

When asked if there was a specific incident that motivated her to promote inclusion or a community without barriers, she talked of something that happened when she was in 7th grade. Upon seeing a room of children, sitting in wheelchairs and with other disabilities, she asked the teacher why these children could not be with the rest of the class. The teacher replied, “Because they have disabilities and cannot be with other children.” This did not make sense; they looked like nice children and she wanted to get to know them and be friends. She would never forget peering into that classroom window and wishing there was not a barrier between them.  She shared in her essay, “this specific incident shaped my life, although I did not realize it at the time.”

Tonight’s recipient has spent her life, teaching, advocating, and bridging the gaps in our community. Her passion for helping her students with disabilities goes far beyond the classroom. In fact, knowing how hard it was for her students to successfully find their way into the community, she brought the community to them. She started a Transitions Class and brought presenters from various agencies, careers and backgrounds to talk with the students in the classroom. Before the students graduated, 3 of the 9 in her classroom had employment.  Once the people from the community got to know her students, they were willing to hire the student.

In her essay she wrote, “I love stories of people like Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan who overcame tremendous challenges through pure grit and determination, and the people who help them achieve success.  I hope to become a part of someone else’s story of achieving goals beyond their wildest dreams.”

And that is exactly what she is doing…her career of teaching and influencing students over the years has transitioned to helping people achieve success and fulfill their dreams by connecting them to the community through meaningful employment, mentors and volunteering. She recently resigned her position from Grand Haven High School and started a non-profit called Transition Bridges.

Her goal with Transition Bridges is “to create a profile of our adults so that employers see the person they are hiring with a set of unique gifts and skills, instead of someone with special needs. People in our community need someone to be a community liaison---someone who will connect them with employment, resources, and who will be a consultant to businesses.”

“There is no blue print for this journey that I am on, just one person’s dream of answering her younger self’s question of why people with disabilities are not living, working, and participating in the same activities as those without disabilities. We all deserve the same opportunities to live, work, and experience life side by side. I have made it my life’s mission to do everything possible to make sure that happens.”

We are thrilled and honored to introduce this beautiful, humble, compassionate and genuine woman, Deb Stanley as the 2015 Ability Award Recipient! 

Deb, tonight we honor you as an individual who advocates for inclusive communities, where everyone can participate, contribute, and belong---regardless of ability.

On behalf of Disability Network/Lakeshore, we present you with the 2015 Ability Award.



Farming is hard work, but there are ways to prevent occupational disabilities

Did you know that jobs in food and agriculture account for 22 percent of Michigan’s employment?

Agriculture pumps more than $10.2 billion annually to the state’s economy. More than 300 commodities are produced in the Great Lakes state on a commercial basis. Michigan also leads nation in production of tart cherries, blueberries, dry beans, floriculture products (Easter lilies, geraniums, petunias, etc.) and cucumbers for pickles.

Some 923,000 workers statewide grow and harvest field crops, work at landscape nurseries, raise livestock, run dairies and raise poultry.

Several of the state’s largest farming operations are in Ottawa and Allegan counties, and many lakeshore area residents suffer from farming-related ailments and disabilities.

Agriculture is labor intensive and, sometimes, dangerous. Many jobs require repetitive motions that can cause inflammation and musculoskeletal problems.

Fortunately, ergonomics in agriculture is now in the spotlight, said Fadi Fathallah, a professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of California at Davis.

“Ergonomics uses the knowledge of human abilities and limitations (in designing work spaces, equipment and tasks),” Fathallah said. “The goal is to fit the job to the person, not the person to the job.”

Stooped postures, heavy lifting, vibration from heavy equipment, excessive noise and rapid hand work from cutting and clipping can take a toll on bodies over time, Fathallah said.

He described interventions – some simple, others complex – during a recent webinar.

Long handles and low-tech container lifters can cut bending and lifting injuries by half, Fathallah said.

Power clippers reduce the risk that landscape nursery workers will develop wrist problems. Few farmworkers who need carpal tunnel surgery on both wrists ever return to work, he said.

Many growers now require workers who do sorting tasks, like packing and grading, to wear aprons constructed with a special foam that muffles vibrations from the conveyer belt they inevitably lean against.

Wheeled prone working platforms pulled slowly forward through the field by a tractor as workers pick produce below relieve the neck and back pain that accompanies long intervals of stooped picking.

Adjustable harvesting platforms eliminate the need for fruit pickers to lift and lower heavy packing boxes. Unfortunately, many mature orchards were not planted with sufficient space around fruit trees to use these platforms, Fathallah said.

A machine has also been developed to eliminate the need for hand weeding. The machine is equipped with a global positioning system that defines each plant in the crop. Most everything else gets yanked.

One of the most successful inventions for avoiding farm-related disabilities, Fathallah said, are five-minute breaks taken hourly.

Short, frequent breaks help farmworkers’ bodies recover from physiological stresses better than one lunch hour, or half-hour in the middle of the day, he said.

Winter wimps, we’re not.

Living on the lakeshore has made us hearty. Lake Michigan is not just our summer friend. The beauty of a freshly fallen blanket of snow makes us sigh as deeply as the next guy.

Yet, wouldn’t you squeal with delight if you thought you could get through the remainder of epic winter 2014 without seeing another snowflake?


For people who use manual wheelchairs, snow is a pain – literally.

Propelling a wheelchair through a few inches of snow multiplies the physical exertion required, and makes steering almost impossible.

And, as you know, the lakeshore has been blanketed under more than a few inches of snow since Thanksgiving. Factor in the “polar vortex” of wind and bitter cold and, well, it’s enough to keep even adventurous users in wheelchairs indoors.

 It may have been winter’s housebound who started the Facebook page, “Hating winter because the snow gets stuck in our wheelchair tires!!!

 Crying on Facebook doesn’t move the snow, but there’s no harm venting frustration among “friends” who know how hard it is to keep your life rolling when your front caster wheels are buried in snow.

That’s why, if you have to park your car in a lot that hasn’t been plowed – or the lot has been plowed but the snow has been pushed into a mountain covering accessible parking – you owe it to yourself and others to have a word with the business owner.

Owners may not realize that a person using a wheelchair has to tip the chair back and balance using only its big wheels to navigate deep or mounded snow. Requiring people to “do wheelies” is not safe – or good business.

It’s a business owner’s responsibility to make a reasonable effort to keep accessible parking clear.

Even when lots and walkways are plowed, expect even short errands during winter to require more muscle and time than usual.

And because it will likely take a person using a wheelchair longer to get inside, it’s especially important to do the things that protect against frostbite – a real condition that can cause permanent damage to the skin.

  • Carry a mobile phone and don’t hesitate to use it to summon help, if needed.

  • Keep your head and ears covered.

  • Keep your hands covered, remembering that mittens keep you warmer than gloves.

  • Dress in layers. (The air between the layers provides insulation!)

  • If cold weather leaves exposed skin red and tingly, it’s probably “frost nip.” Slowly warm the skin under warm (not hot) running water, then avoid going out again for a day or so.

  • Drink plenty of water. Cold weather dries out your skin, making it more vulnerable to frostbite.

  • Smoking, which causes nasal constriction, makes you more susceptible to frostbite.

There are cool inventions to help people in wheelchairs stay active outdoors in winter, but they can be pricey.

You can equip your chair with winter wheels that are not unlike nubby mountain bike tires.

FreeWheel is an attachment that can be clamped to the front of a manual chair, lifting the little caster wheels up and stabilizing the chair with one larger, thicker wheel. Great gizmo but it costs almost $600.

There’s also a contraption called Wheelblades – small skis that attach to the front wheels so they glide across the snow, rather than sinking into it. Size of dent in wallet: About $350.

OK fellow people in wheelchairs. Share your strategies. What do you do to keep active and get out and about when you need to in the winter?