Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thinking About Winter

Game of Thrones character Ned Stark, with caption "Brace Yourself Winter Is Coming"
Tiffiny Carlson, New Mobility - November 6, 2013

I’m not a “wheeler”, but winter here in Northern New York isn’t easy for me. It’s not easy for anyone, but there are a few specific hazards that loom extra large in my life between early December and late March.

- I can’t shovel snow. This is less of a problem since I moved to a rented apartment building five years ago, but at least four or five times per winter I’m one of the last people in the building to try walking down the long ramp to the parking lot after a snowstorm, and can’t use my car until my friend Andy can make it over to dig it out.

- I have become, if anything, more afraid of ice underfoot than I used to be as a kid and young adult. “Wheelers” have their own difficulties with winter navigation, but there are many times I’d rather be in a wheelchair than trying to make my way over unfamiliar terrain on my unsteady pins. You get to know the various colors, textures, and light-reflecting effects of the different kinds of snow and ice that coat the ground. You also, hopefully, learn how to fall down properly.

- The most humiliating problem I run into is my car door freezing shut. Why humiliating? Because usually, it’s frozen just enough to prevent me from opening it, but not enough to make it at all difficult for anyone with anything like normal arm strength and finger dexterity. Rationally, I know it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but I feel silly anyway when after 15 minutes of my futile tugging, a kind passerby opens the door with a little pull and a tiny *clink* of breaking ice. A sturdy kitchen spoon sometimes helps me pry the door open, but then I have to remember to carry a stupid spoon out with me if I think the door’s going to be stuck again.

- I could also buy an automatic car starter, so the car would heat up before I got to it, but that’s one of those helpful, adaptive steps I’ve been unwilling to take since I bought my current car. Sure, it’s kind of expensive, but that’s not why I haven’t done it. Some might say it’s toughness, or determination to do things unaided. Or, maybe it’s bull-headedness … or stupidity.

Really, though, the winter hardships I face are trivial compared to the people I know who have physical disabilities and don’t drive. America is a car-centric culture, sidewalks are an afterthought, pedestrians are second-class citizens, and these facts are never more dire than during winter in a northern climate, in anything smaller than a small city.

Streets are always plowed and sanded. It’s one of a handful of things little towns and villages are really good at, and practically the only thing small town taxpayers don’t mind paying for. But, in my home town anyway, sidewalks are left to patchwork "voluntary compliance”. There’s an ordinance requiring property owners to clear their bits of adjacent sidewalk, but there’s little enforcement and no coordination. The idea of having city employees clear sidewalks is considered an extravagance, and … I kid you not … a symbol of the deterioration of civic virtue, because all the good citizens should be keeping the sidewalks clear voluntarily, out of a sense of neighborly duty!

So, wheelchair users, blind people, people who use canes, crutches and walkers, and anyone who can’t drive never know from one day to the next if they can get from point A to B, whether the route to work that was clear yesterday will be icy or totally blocked by snow … either fallen snow, or snow pushed out of the road and onto the sidewalks. Meanwhile, everyone else click their tongues and shake their heads at the irresponsibility of property owners, and complain loudly when they see a wheelchair user forced to make their way in the street. But just plowing all the sidewalks is impractical.

Yeah, that’s a sore point around here, especially for disabled people.

I’m with Tiffiny Carlson, though. I’ll probably never move to a milder climate. I’d miss “real” winter. After all, there is no better justification for sheer, lazy, stay-at-home-ness than a good snowstorm.


PS: I got the Ned Stark "Winter Is Coming" picture from this wonderful short Tumblr post for "Spoonies" ... people with chronic pain / illness, another kind of disability that can make winter more difficult.

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