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Snow-covered sidewalks create mobility barriers for seniors, people with disabilities

A mound of snow blocks the entrance to a sidewalk on W. 65th Street on Cleveland's west side. For people using walkers or wheelchairs, or those who have visual impairment, this snow mound could be dangerous. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]
A mound of snow blocks the entrance to a sidewalk on W. 65th Street on Cleveland's west side. For people using walkers or wheelchairs, or those who have visual impairment, this snow mound could be dangerous. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]

Navigating snow-covered sidewalks during a Cleveland-area winter can be challenging for anyone. For people with mobility issues, it can be a barrier preventing them from getting where they need to go. 

"If you think about somebody who has trouble moving around on a normal basis, perhaps they use a wheelchair, a scooter, a walker, a cane, they have some device. That device, it really relies on having nice conditions," said Dr. Victoria Whitehair, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at MetroHealth.

"Rollers can slip, standard wheelchairs can't even make it through slush or on ice, so to not be able to navigate on icy or snowed-in conditions, is really going to trap somebody who doesn't have that extra capability," she said. 

After a big Northeast Ohio snow, patients often have to miss doctors' appointments, Whitehair said. Her department treats people who have mobility issues, including people who have balance issues who might not be able to climb over a snowbank or pick up their feet enough to trudge through inches or feet of snow. 

People who are blind or have impaired vision might also struggle to navigate snow and ice, according to Disability Rights Ohio.

For some, their mobility issues might actually be caused by ice and snow, Whitehair said. 

"We see people who have injuries as a result of falls from the snow or the ice," she said. "People who did not have a mobility impairment beforehand, but gained a new injury."

Injuries caused by bad weather include brain injuries, damage to the spinal cord, or broken bones, Whitehair said. 

Navigating snowy streets and sidewalks is hazardous for seniors

Cleveland resident Vanessa Jackson moved to Northeast Ohio during the winter a few years ago, and she was shocked to find the city doesn't clear sidewalks. 

"I never lived anywhere before where they didn't clean off the sidewalks. It was terrifying. You had to walk very gingerly in the street because there was ice everywhere," she said. 

"It's dark, they're walking in the street in non-reflective clothing, somebody's going to get killed," she said. "There was a lady walking in the street the other day with a walker. That should never happen."

Jackson is the senior and wellness coordinator at the May Dugan Center. She's also a senior herself, and she's worried about falling on the ice. 

"For many older adults, breaking a hip is the first step into decline where they can no longer independently care for themselves," Jackson said. 

After a fall, a person's mobility might be limited and they can't walk or drive like before the fall, she said.

Cleveland and Cuyahoga County residents are getting older. It’s estimated that by 2030 in Cuyahoga County, almost 30 percent of the total population will be over 60, higher than the statewide and national averages, according to the  Center for Community Solutions in Cleveland.

Who is responsible for shoveling?

Some Northeast Ohio cities, like Lakewood and Shaker Heights, have implemented ordinances that require residents to shovel after a snowfall. 

"A lot of people don't have access to those services, and so, if there's an obligation or they're expected to remove snow from their sidewalks and they're physically unable to do so, that's a problem," said Kevin Truitt, the legal advocacy director for Disability Rights Ohio. 

Dr. Whitehair agrees that mandates seem good in theory, but it can cause a greater challenge for people who aren't physically capable of shoveling and don't have the financial means to hire a snow removal service. 

"If we are placing this on the individual, and it's an individual who actually can't do it, well now we've actually placed more burden onto that person," she said. 

A nonprofit called LakewoodAlive is helping residents fulfill the city's snow removal mandate by recruiting volunteers to shovel sidewalks. The group prioritizes elderly residents and those who are disabled. 

Some landlords are responsible for shoveling parking lots and common areas, but sometimes a person's lease requires them to shovel their own entryway, Truitt said. 

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb was criticized after the last big snowfall for not plowing streets quickly enough. He responded to these criticisms by promising 20 additional snow trucks, more efficient routes, drivers on standby, and a snowplow tracker, but the focus was more on the streets than it was on clearing sidewalks. 

"If the goal of Cleveland is to be a liveable city for everybody, then the least they can do is get the snow off the sidewalk," Jackson said. 

Mayor Bibb's office did not immediately return a request for comment.

Public transportation can be difficult to access if sidewalks aren't cleared. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]

Public transportation is an additional mobility barrier in the winter

Many MetroHealth patients rely on public transportation to get to appointments, and snow can make it difficult to use that service, Whitehair said. 

"It's something that a lot of us don't think about a lot in Cleveland, since it's a very car-based city, but there are a lot of people who do rely on public transportation. You have to be able to get down the sidewalk to get to it, and then you have to be able to get off the bus and to wherever you need to go," she said. 

Whitehair said she has seen buses park in intersections to let riders off and many people have to walk in the street to get to their destination, both of which can be dangerous.

During the recent heavy snowfall on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) shut down their train and bus routes due to the wintery weather. 

A lack of access to transportation can cause people to miss doctors' appointments, not be able to go grocery shopping, or struggle to get to work.

For those who qualify, RTA's paratransit service might be an easier way to get around than walking to a bus stop. 

These mobility challenges can affect a person's health

Snow and ice can cause physical injuries, and missing doctors' appointments can also have a negative impact on a person's physical health, but the isolation caused by mobility issues can also cause problems with people's mental health, Whitehair said.

"I think that's tough for everybody in Northeast Ohio when winter comes," she said. "But what if the only time you saw people was your weekly trip to the grocery store?"

For seniors, social isolation is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes each day,  according to the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Researchers found that seniors who don’t socialize have higher rates of heart disease and stroke, and it can also impact cognitive impairment, so isolation caused by snow can have both mental and physical effects.

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158