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.

"I literally had to ask for help," she said. "Sometimes you just aren't in the mood to ask for help."

Willshire said one of the biggest differences she's noticed between this winter and previous ones is a lack of shoveling.

"I don't know if they don't take it seriously enough, but it just seems like we're not getting things addressed in the best way possible at all this year, and we've got to take it seriously," she said.

It's one reason the Council on Disability is hosting a news conference Friday, to make the issue more visible and clarify who is responsible for walkway maintenance.

The city of Minneapolis requires property owners to clear their sidewalks within 24 hours after a snowfall. Apartment and commercial building owners have just four daytime hours, beginning at 8 a.m.

If residents complain about an un-shoveled area, the city inspects the area and gives the property owner a deadline for clearing the walkway. If it isn't cleared by the deadline, a city crew clears it and the property owner is billed for the service.

Property owners are responsible for sidewalks and curb cuts, but the city is responsible for corners.

'We are behind'

Heidi Hamilton, deputy director of Public Works, said city crews, using about 20 Bobcats, recently cleared every corner in Minneapolis. But then the Feb. 20 storm hit and erased all their work.

"We are behind," she said last week. "This has been an extraordinary winter, and it's been difficult to keep up."

Minneapolis is in the third year of a pilot program experimenting with hiring contract crews to enforce sidewalk shoveling in the Northeast and Uptown neighborhoods, said Mike Kennedy, director of transportation maintenance and repair. Similar programs in north and south Minneapolis are comparing the cost and speed of corner clearing by contract and city crews.

The Council on Disability and Metro Mobility are both trying to encourage property owners to shovel their walks. But they haven't yet seen tangible results.

Sitting in the Council on Disability's St. Paul offices last Friday, Imdieke Cross looked through a street-facing window and pointed outside.

"There's a guy with a shovel," she said. "This time of year, that's my favorite sight."

Emma Nelson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.