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!

Access 25 Years Later ...

Dan Wedge said he grew up feeling sad for people like his grandmother who used a wheelchair after losing a leg to diabetes.

“There were so many things that she would have enjoyed that she didn’t get to do,” Wedge said. “Even going out to eat with her required a lot of planning because there were so few restaurants that a wheelchair user could get into.”

Wedge - now Allegan County’s executive director of services - says his experience as a person using a wheelchair has been much different, thanks largely to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Wedge lost use of his legs in 1987 when his Cadillac rolled on him as he tried to push it up a snowy embankment after sliding off an icy Mecosta County road.

After rehabilitation, he was able to return to his sales position with office equipment business owned by his family, but being able to access public places wasn’t something a person using a wheelchair could count on.

That began to change when Congress enacted the ADA three years later, in 1990.

“The ADA reinforces that people with disabilities have a right to equal access,” Wedge said. “Its focus really addresses the needs of everybody.”

Parents of young children appreciate curbed sidewalks and the option of a wider public restroom stall, Wedge said. Subtitles on TV shows and movies benefit the hearing as well as the hearing impaired.

The ADA-inspired hard-surface walkway over the beach to Lake Michigan is the most popular way to access the water among all visitors to Holland State Park, he said.

Near and dear to Wedge’s heart is the new “winding ramp” at West Side Park in Allegan County which allows visitors including people who use wheelchairs to gradually navigate the 80-foot drop from the bluff to the Lake Michigan shore. Two scenic rest decks are popular with people with and without disabilities alike.

And the list goes on.

Individuals using wheelchairs may not be sitting still much longer.

Design enhancements are coming from several quarters that expand possibilities for people using wheelchairs.

CBS News aired a story Jan. 17 about the latest and greatest iteration of a standing wheelchair. It shows a user in a gym easily maneuvering his compact chair from a sitting to a standing position and then shooting a basketball through a hoop twice.

Standing wheelchairs give users more autonomy and independence, but the greater benefits may be to the user’s physiology.

Many doctors consider immobility to be the “new cancer” that’s slowly killing too many people.

Standing promotes bone health and muscle strengthening, improves respiratory function, enhances bladder and bowel function, and reduces the threat of contractures.

“The human body is designed to be upright,” said Erin Neuland, a physical therapist at The International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore told Rehab Management magazine. “Our bones, muscles, organs and nervous system function optimally when either walking or standing.”

Scientific research shows that upright mobility improves outcomes for patients in physical therapy, she said.

The newest standing wheelchairs offer multiple functions, including sit-to-stand and seated transfers. Inventor Dean Kamen is working on an electronic one that is highly intuitive – allowing the user to move when reaching forward and leaning back. The iBot can even climb stairs!

Design of prone standers is also improving to add premium adjustability and increased utility.

Ever popular power wheelchairs -- which perform well under many indoor and outdoor conditions -- are also getting new features like easy-touch switches and chin booms with joysticks.

Not all of the newer features are all that high tech. Methods are now available that custom-mold seats to fit people using wheelchairs with structural deformities. These seats make wheelchairs more comfortable and functional for users who need them.

Another exciting wrinkle: Wheelchairs are being designed to connect with their user’s computer keyboard and environmental controls through Bluetooth and joystick technology. 

The wheelchair becomes part of the interface that allows users to turn off the television, turn on the lights, unlock doors and answer the telephone.

That’s a whole lot more than a ride.

Growing A Garden From a Wheelchair

Gardening is good therapy.

That’s what Cherry Overway says.

“When you see weeds, you’ve got a choice,” said Overway, 73. “You can watch it get worse or you can do something.”

Cherry Garden.jpg

Overway’s garden is tucked away at the end of Myrtle Avenue in Holland. You stroll through it to get to “The Cherry Tree House,” where she has lived 48 years, which faces East End Drive.

The long, narrow garden features 647 varieties of flowers, almost all of them perennials. The garden comes alive with color with the blooming of the crocuses in March and continues through October with the mums. 

A seven-month garden is a fine achievement in West Michigan. What’s more astounding is that Overway tends it all from her wheelchair, a rolling stool or by scooting along while sitting on the end of a wagon.

“It’s a lot of work in the spring, but it’s nice to get out here after sitting in the house all winter,” said Overway, who contracted polio at 18 months of age, before the vaccine was invented. “During the summer, I’m outside 12 to 15 hours a day. Sometimes I’m working but mostly I’m just enjoying it.”

Overway likes to share her garden with friends and neighbors. Members of the Holland Horticultural Club encouraged her to throw a garden party in 2001, and Overway has continued the tradition every year since on the first Sunday of June, when her irises are in their glory.

Close to 100 people stop by some years – and not just for Cherry’s Memphis-style barbecue.

Overway enjoys telling guests who ask the history of her garden, which was an open space when her daughters Kathy and Kristi were little.

But a neighbor, who has since moved, decided to erect a fence. Her neighbor on the other side later did the same, framing in her irregular-shaped lot.

So, Overway did what gardeners do when they’re slightly miffed. She planted marigolds on her property line.

She liked the color. She liked finding new and exotic plants. Truthfully, she says she couldn’t resist buying plants she didn’t have. And friends and family gave her plants for special occasions.

Until four years ago, Overway was able to get around with a walker, but even then it usually worked better to garden from a seated position.

She designed her garden with raised beds that she doesn’t have to bend over to tend. The beds are narrow so she doesn’t have to reach far, but she also has gardening tools with good, fat grips that easier to use.

Paving and making paths wide enough to maneuver in a chair is essential, Overway said.  

Her original path, paved with concrete blocks, leads under an arbor where there are two steps down.  When Overway moved to a wheelchair, she needed to have a second path constructed to bypass the stairs. Most visitors don’t realize that the second path, this one created with wood planks, is an accessibility feature. It just all blends in, she said.

Watering a garden with a hose can be a nuisance if you’re pulling it from a wheelchair, Overway said. She has soaker hoses installed beneath the topsoil to keep her garden soil moist.

Even if she didn’t use a wheelchair, Overway says she would have “zero interest in mowing grass” because it has to be done weekly. Her front lawn, facing East End Drive, is covered in wood chips except for an octagon-shaped patch of grass.

“Somebody said I had to have some grass,” Overway said with a huff. “There it is. My neighbor mows it when he cuts his grass.”

Gardeners with disabilities are wise to plan before they plant, Overway said. If she hadn’t decided on narrow, raised beds, she couldn’t have continued adding to the garden when she went from a walker to a chair.

She finds she can do most of the work herself, but says she’s also fortunate to have neighbor’s she can “call anytime about anything.”

They’re always willing to help. They enjoy Cherry’s garden, too.


Sunny skies, warmer weather - let's hit the beach!

Holland State Park’s mile-long white sand Lake Michigan beach is enjoyed by more than 1.5 million visitors each year. In the two summers since the state park purchased a $2,500 all-terrain wheelchair, a growing number of people who use wheelchairs have actually been able to get down to the water.

For most of the park’s 88-year history, people in wheelchairs had to be content to admire sailboats and sunsets from the parking lot.

An 8-foot wide concrete sidewalk from the parking lot and along Holland Channel to the pier was the focal point of a remodeling project in 2001. Visitors got their first up-close-and-personal contact with the shoreline in 2000, when a 450-foot sidewalk made of interlocking plastic planks was donated. That seasonal sidewalk is reassembled over the sand in May, and packed away again in mid-September, before fall and winter storms would bury it. 

“Those things have improved access to the lake a lot,“ said Erik Bailey, Holland State Park’s lead ranger. “It couldn’t be described as perfect, though. While our beach wheelchair can get wet, it doesn’t float.”

In other words, a person using the park’s beach wheelchair could get their feet wet, but couldn’t be immersed unless he or she could transfer from the chair.

Bailey said the Plainwell State Park District, which includes Holland State Park, considered purchasing another type of beach wheelchair that floats, but chose the all-terrain chair because its wheels are larger and thicker, making it easier for an assistant to wheel a rider over the sand. 

“Our beach chair was in use six to 10 times a week last summer,” Balley said. “A lot of times it’s young kids pushing their grandparents and that’s really neat to see.” 

There were also questions about liability with the floating chairs, Bailey said. 

An assistant has to push the person in the chair – which has armrests and a pivoting front fork wheel that float -- into the water and wade while he or she floats. There are several makes of floating wheelchairs. Then to be steady in calm waters, but a big wave could cause them to tip, making an attendant essential.

WaterWheels demonstration in St. Petersburg, Fla. in September 2013

WaterWheels demonstration in St. Petersburg, Fla. in September 2013

“Water is freedom for someone who can’t walk because it’s a zero-gravity environment,” said Sabastien Ragon, of AccessRec LLC in Union City, NJ, which markets a floating wheelchair called WaterWheels. “A lot of parks, resorts and attractions on the water have these to assure accessibility to the water, which is always their biggest drawing card.” 

The WaterWheels is fashioned from a lightweight aluminum bicycle frame. It sells for $1,700, making it one of the more economical chairs of its type.

Grand Haven State Park got its first all-terrain wheelchair a year ago. Longtime Holland State Park Supervisor Joyce Rhodes brought the idea when she was transferred because of its popularity in Holland, Bailey said.

Discussions about whether Saugatuck Dunes State Park should have a beach wheelchair “never went anywhere,” Bailey said, because it is almost a mile from the parking lot to the beach. That’s a lot of sand to traverse in any kind of chair." 

Before the beach wheelchairs, park personnel would drive visitors who use wheelchairs who asked down to see the water in an all-terrain utility vehicle. However, it is important to reserve “the Gator” for emergency use, Bailey said.

Holland State Park charges no fee and imposes no time limit for using the beach wheelchair, although Bailey said staff like to get an idea of when it will be returned in case another visitor requests it.

Public access to the Holland Channel will be further enhanced by an extension of the Ottawa County Parks Department’s boardwalk and fishing pier into Holland State Park. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has awarded a  $250,000 grant for the project and construction could begin as early as fall 2014, Bailey said. 

Do you think Holland State Park should add a floating wheelchair to make it possible for people who need wheelchairs to actually get in the water?