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!

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?