On his way to work last week, Anthony Stevens got tangled in caution tape and fell twice on his back.
Stevens, who is blind and uses a guide dog, found it difficult to travel in the wake of a blizzard that left towers of snow at curb cuts and complicated his travel. He’d follow paved sidewalks to find them blocked, and his plotted paths impassable.
“You feel like you’re Lewis and Clark,” Stevens says. “Everything’s different.”
After large amounts of snow fall, people with disabilities find themselves at a disadvantage. Accessible curb cuts become piled with snow, covering the tactile paving designed to signal the beginning of the crosswalk and the dips of the curb that are angled to orient those without sight. For wheelchair users or those who have decreased leg mobility, this makes it nearly impossible to access a sidewalk or lower a ramp to exit their car.
Stevens, who is the director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind, says a large problem is the scattered nature of resources available to people with disabilities. Stevens himself was not aware of a 311 hotline set up by the District to call and report difficulties during the storm. He says he felt the snow clearing had been better than in past years, but that pedestrian mobility for his community always seems to be an afterthought.
“It’s one of the issues we face. We’re always in the backlog,” Stevens said.
Now, the District agency tasked with snow response is in the process of forming a disability advisory committee.
For the past two and a half years, the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency has been communicating with advocacy groups when it makes its snow plans so it can know what specific problems individuals with disabilities are facing in these conditions, says Interim Director Chris Geldart.
This year, the District had 2,000 volunteers available to shovel; opened eight warming centers—one in each ward—for anyone who was experiencing a power outage or just needed a place to go during the storm; and took over for the contracted company that usually delivers meals to individuals who are homebound.
At one point, the 311 hotline HSEMA had set up to report dangerous or difficult snow situations received 15,000 calls.
“It’s hard. Everybody, the whole community had issues fighting mother nature, with the snow having melted and refrozen at night. It was a difficult time,” Geldart says.
Large piles of snow that block curb cuts are the major issue for people with disabilities. Geldart says it’s the property owner’s responsibility to clear those areas, whether it’s a business, residence, or public property. Even for those who remember to be a good neighbor in the morning and shovel, plows often come by soon after and inadvertently pile on snow as they turn corners. Geldart himself had to shovel his curb cut three times in one day.
The snow has now melted, but HSEMA is still trying to figure out how it can improve. Officials from the agency began reaching out to disability advocates this week in an effort to create a board of advisors instead of hearing from hundreds of individual organizations.
Another issue the committee will undoubtedly deal with after its creation: weather-related public transportation issues. This becomes particularly problematic for those who don’t have their own vehicles or who can’t afford an independent car service or to take off of work until the snow has melted.
MetroAccess, WMATA’s service for people with disabilities, and Transport DC, the $5-per-way taxi service that MetroAccess customers can use, were also unavailable during the snow-related Metro closure.
“It’s a nightmare for so many people and folks with disabilities,” says Carol Tyson, an advocate with United Spinal Association.
Heidi Case, an advocate with Project Action, went directly to the Metro board to speak to its members about how these issues affect people with disabilities.
“Honestly, I think that Bowser opening everything like schools and the government so early, then the focus is on those ‘able-bodied’ people getting to and from work. If she hadn’t, there would’ve been more focus on getting everybody out,” Case says.
What she’s even more concerned about is Transport DC’s possible partnership with Uber and Lyft. According to Tyson, Uber hasn’t provided the exact number of vehicles that have chair access ramps in D.C. The app-based companies are currently being sued in California and Texas for allegedly discriminating against wheelchair users or individuals with guide dogs.
Natalie Illum, who has cerebral palsy and uses crutches, says she called off from work in the days following the storm, because she knew how unreliable city transportation services would be. She says at this point, most people who have to travel through snow with any disability have to rely on the help of strangers to get out of sticky situations. But relying on other people isn’t always practical, since strangers might not be around or may be unwilling to help. She had one friend who fell out of his chair and had to pull himself up using a snowbank because no one was around to help him back up.
“People being nice is not a reasonable accommodation and it’s not something people should rely on to get through their day,” Ilum said.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery