For Minnesotans with disabilities, this winter brings extra peril

  • Article by: EMMA NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 5, 2014 - 5:59 AM

This winter’s heavy snow and ice have made sidewalks especially treacherous for those with disabilities.

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Joan Willshire plowed through slush as she crossed a street near her office. “We don’t all have somebody coming with us,” she said.

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com,

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At an intersection near her downtown St. Paul office, Joan Willshire eyed what stood between her and the street she wanted to cross: icy sidewalks, snow-piled curbs and slush-covered streets.

The moment the light turned green, she moved, navigating her automated wheelchair across the busy street. She crossed quickly to make the light, carving a wide arc around a buried curb before settling safely on the sidewalk.

It’s no secret that traversing the streets in this harsh winter is a challenge. But for those with physical disabilities, the snow and ice can be particularly dangerous, if not impassable.

“People don’t think it’s any big deal,” said Willshire, executive director of the Minnesota State Council On Disability. “People with disabilities work, and we go to the grocery store, we go to church, we go to medical appointments. And we don’t all have somebody coming with us.”

The combination of heavy snow, deep freezes and poorly shoveled sidewalks is making it more difficult than in past winters to get around, and for city crews to keep up with street maintenance. Frustration has led to action: Minnesotans with disabilities are pushing for more education about sidewalk clearing and Minneapolis is experimenting with new systems to keep walkways clear.

Injuries abound

The conditions also are taking a toll on those without disabilities. Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 25, Hennepin County Medical Center saw 56 patients with injuries from falls on snow and ice.

Andrew Schmidt, an orthopedic surgeon at HCMC, said ankle fractures are the most common injuries from winter falls. Wrist fractures, often the result of trying to stop a fall, are also common.

What’s different about 2014 is that the unrelenting winter days — and the injuries that come with them — just won’t let up.

“It’s challenging enough for people without impairments to walk,” he said.

Abdirahman Hassan, a University of Minnesota junior who walks with a cane, slipped crossing the street — his second fall this season — just as a car was turning toward him. Fortunately, he said, the car was able to stop in time.

Still, Hassan, who is president of the U’s Disabled Student Cultural Center, said he’s expecting more falls — including on the U campus, where there’s also a lot of ice.

“It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “I don’t want to predict my own downfall, but there’s so many times I was close to falling.”

Metro Mobility manager Andrew Krueger said a combination of increased ridership and difficult driving conditions this winter has caused delays for the ride service.

Snow is forcing drivers to park farther away from pickup locations, and ice makes the trip to and from the vehicle more dangerous. In past winters, Krueger said, riders often canceled in bad weather. This year, that’s not the case.

“It could be that it’s just been a really long, bitter winter,” he said, “so people have put trips off, and you just can’t anymore.”

‘An extraordinary winter’

Margot Imdieke Cross, accessibility specialist at the Council On Disability, said she recently got her wheelchair stuck in the snow. She was outside the State Office Building at the Capitol, and underestimated how soft the snow was.

  • Keeping sidewalks clear

    What: Minnesota State Council On Disability news conference

    When: Friday, March 7, 11 a.m.

    Where: State Office Building, Room 181, St. Paul

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