Jerika Eppel walked home from class slowly, as she usually does in the winter, carefully making her way across the slippery sidewalk to her apartment on the outskirts of the University of Minnesota campus.
But the sidewalk a few blocks from her place was “pure ice,” turning a recent routine trip into a dangerous one for the U senior. She slipped on the ice, hitting her head on the concrete and suffering a concussion.
Eppel, who has muscular dystrophy and uses leg braces to walk, said the apartment complex responsible for maintaining the sidewalk doesn’t consistently shovel or put down salt, effectively cutting off access for those with physical disabilities.
“When I returned home, I called them and said, ‘Hey, you need to do something about this,’ ” she said.
Snow and ice are perennial problems for Minneapolis residents like Eppel. Despite the city’s amped-up efforts to enforce shoveling, recent snowfalls have only underscored the reality that accessibility remains a challenge.
Joan Willshire, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Disability, said snow and ice make it nearly impossible for some people to get out of the house.
“Quite frankly, it’s getting to the point where it’s going to be an emergency here for us to get to work, to get medical appointments, to get groceries,” she said.
Minneapolis requires residents to clear snow from sidewalks after a snowfall. Single-family homes and duplexes must clear it within 24 hours after a snowfall; other property owners have four hours.
But not everyone does their part, accessibility advocates say, creating a patchwork system that’s difficult to navigate. Some sidewalks can remain unshoveled for days, even weeks.
“Our life comes to a total standstill in times like this — a total standstill. And I don’t think people grasp that,” Willshire said.
Willshire, who uses a three-wheel scooter, said she has sometimes ventured into bike lanes because they are better cleared than sidewalks.
“I’m looking at it as a new way of getting somewhere and somewhat safe … but it’s not meant for that,” she said.
Even when sidewalks are shoveled, snow piles often block off curb cuts — the ramps leading into walkways — which prevents access for wheelchairs.
Even a small amount of snow can be a problem, said Thomas Bowlin, 26, of Apple Valley,
“A lot of times I can’t get through that very well. I need to have my wife push me to get through it or somehow figure a way to go down another street that has a better-shoveled area,” said Bowlin, who often goes to downtown Minneapolis for Timberwolves games.
“If you have a tough time stepping over it, how do you think I’m going to do getting through it?” he said.
For others, the snowplows clearing the street cause problems.
Scott Engel, a member of the volunteer advocacy group Our Streets, said plows often leave behind large mounds in street corners and pedestrian crossings. That makes it difficult for Engel, who is blind, to feel where he is going with his cane.
Engel said he recently got stuck on the wrong side of the snow mound and started walking on the street, with cars “whizzing by.”
“When it’s all snow, I can’t even tell if I’m in a yard or the middle of a street,” he said. “It is freaking scary and it’s definitely not comfortable … You never know if you will slide into the street and get hit by a car.”
The city has long used an informal approach to sidewalk shoveling: relying on residents to report unshoveled sidewalks to 311. The city will give a notice of violation, and, if a sidewalk remains unshoveled, send out contractors to do the job and bill property owners for the work. But it can take more than a week for the snow to get cleared.
Minneapolis Public Works is taking a more proactive role on enforcement this year, sending out city inspectors to find and report unkempt sidewalks. So far this winter, city employees have inspected over 24,000 properties, issuing 960 violation notices to property owners.
Increased enforcement is a step in the right direction, some residents say, but it’s far from perfect.
Ken Rodgers, chairman of the Minneapolis Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities, said he’s had a “mixed experience” with the city’s new approach. He thinks the city could take on more responsibility for clearing out sidewalks, though he admits it’s a challenging situation.
“I don’t know what the answer is. We live in a climate that has a lot of snow,” he said. “It’s just the nature of where we live.”
For many people with physical disabilities, the state’s recent weather has meant staying indoors, sometimes for days on end.
“I pretty much avoid rolling anywhere in the winter,” said Gabriel Rodreick, 26, who uses a wheelchair. “It is a weird kind of prison for three or four months out of the year.”
Rodreick said there needs to be greater awareness about accessibility for those with physical disabilities.
“Not everybody moves around the city the same way,” he said. “If everybody knew that some people use wheelchairs and they can’t go to work, or go to school or go to their doctors’ appointments because they haven’t shoveled their walks, I think that would be a good lesson.”
Austen Macalus is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.