NPR Story
2:10 pm
Fri February 21, 2014

Navigating Obstacles For Wheelchair Users

When snow piles up, property owners don’t always shovel their sidewalks, and that can make it nearly impossible for some people to get around safely, especially those who use a wheelchair or have problem vision.

Kelly Buckland knows what it’s like to try to make it along winter sidewalks and roads. He broke his neck in a diving accident when he was 16 in Idaho, and has been using a wheelchair ever since. He also knows what it’s like to advocate and lobby to improve conditions for people with disabilities.

Buckland, who is executive director of the National Council on Independent Living, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the struggles disabled people face in the winter months.

We also hear a piece by Ryan Weber of Illinois Public Media. He reports on how disabled residents are faring in the Urbana-Champaign area, where more than 38 inches of snow have fallen this winter. Read a transcript of his story here.

Interview Highlights: Kelly Buckland

On legal requirements to clear snow 

“There are jurisdictions that don’t have such a requirement. Like, for instance, D.C. has the requirement. Bethesda, Maryland has the requirement. Fairfax County, Virginia does not. So they sort of leave it to people’s honor about doing their sidewalks, and of course, some people do and some people don’t. There’s a thing on the books, but there’s not too much enforcement of that.”

“There is, actually, a requirement in the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s called the Maintenance of Accessible Features, so it requires that, if you have accessible features, which you’re required to by the ADA, then you also have a requirement to maintain those accessible features.”

Why sidewalks don’t always get cleared

“Once you get big snowstorms like that, most people are busy out clearing streets and trying to get people back on the road. And so, when it comes to keeping the sidewalks and that stuff usable by people in wheelchairs, that’s unfortunately one of the last things they get around to.”

“Be neighborly. Go out and shovel your sidewalks.”

Reporter

  • Ryan Weber, intern at Illinois Public Media and student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He tweets @ryanjweber.

Guest

Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

As you've heard way too often, there have been near-record snowfalls in many parts of the country this winter. And often property owners can't keep up. Their sidewalks don't get shoveled. It's nearly impossible for people to get around, especially those who use a wheelchair or have trouble seeing well.

In Jeremy's hometown, the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, there's been 38 inches of snow so far this year. And WILL's Ryan Weber reports on how some of the disabled are faring.

RYAN WEBER, BYLINE: On a windy and cold Sunday afternoon, just a few days after a snowstorm, Meredith Bradford trudges through snow and ice-covered sidewalks in her power wheelchair.

MEREDITH BRADFORD: The first day of school, I - on this exact sidewalk that we're going to end up on was completely covered in ice. And I, like, slipped off of it and then had to have some random person, like, help me get up again, back onto the sidewalk. So that was kind of embarrassing and not convenient.

WEBER: The twin cities of Champaign and Urbana both have ordinances that require property owners to clear sidewalks, but it only applies if they're located in certain districts, such as the downtown areas. That creates a problem for some people with a disability, like Bradford, who has cerebral palsy. She's a sophomore at the University of Illinois' Urbana Campus, and she can't get around too easily in her wheelchair after a snowfall. The low-traction wheels are not well-suited for sidewalks with any snow or ice cover.

STEPHANIE ZAIA: I just kind of hope that cars see me.

WEBER: That's Stephanie Zaia, another student and power-wheelchair user. She has a different strategy when she can't make it over a sidewalk.

ZAIA: I would rather drive on the street than the sidewalks or the crosswalks. If it was up to me, I'd drive in the middle of the road because people can see me that way, and it feels safer in my mind.

WEBER: Zaia says she does that to keep from sliding off from the sidewalks. As we were walking in the windy cold now, that's exactly what happened. She tries to drive over some light snow cover on a pathway - not much of an obstacle for me - but it took a couple of minutes for her to make it back onto the sidewalk without tipping over.

ZAIA: Oh, watch out.

WEBER: Generally, Urbana and Champaign don't issue notices to clear sidewalks in the snow-removal districts until at least two inches of snow or any amount of ice accumulates. Urbana enacted snow-removal ordinance two years ago. The city's environmental compliance officer, Jason Arrasmith, says if he can see people made an effort to clear sidewalks adjacent to their property, he won't issue them a fine.

JASON ARRASMITH: Kind of hope that people would comply on their own and be helpful and just kind of take care of it, just in general, help each other out. And that's more of what we try and educate and teach people, that, hey, it only takes you another five or 10 minutes. Clear the sidewalk that's out front and make it easier for your neighbors and those that need to get around.

WEBER: But student Sheila Schneider, who has a visual impairment that all but eliminates her peripheral vision, says that kind of neighborly camaraderie she would like doesn't carry over in either Champaign or Urbana.

SHEILA SCHNEIDER: I live in West Champaign, and they're absolutely hideous. Nobody shovels their sidewalks at all.

WEBER: Because the cities don't have the personnel or revenue available to broaden the areas where the ordinance can be enforced, the responsibility remains with property owners. And U of I student Stephanie Zaia says that can be a real issue for her, especially when she has to sit holed up in her dorm room until enough of the snow is gone.

ZAIA: It's just frustrating for them. Because people don't even realize when they, like, shovel the snow, I don't think they realize how much we need it shoveled or even if they can shovel it as much as we need it to be, like we need it clear.

WEBER: And unlike the sidewalks, that request seems to be pretty clear. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Ryan Weber.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well, let's get the big picture on this now from Kelly Buckland. He's executive director of the National Council on Independent Living, which is based in Washington, D.C., where he joins us via Skype. Kelly, welcome to HERE AND NOW.

KELLY BUCKLAND: Thank you very much. It's important to be here, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, is that story that we just heard common across the country?

BUCKLAND: Yes, it is. At least in the states that get snow, it's very common.

HOBSON: Well, I see, though, that a lot of cities do have regulations, and they say you're supposed to clear the sidewalks in front of your house or your business. Although is that really followed by everyone?

BUCKLAND: No, it's not. And there are jurisdictions that don't have such a requirement. Like, for instance, D.C. has the requirement. Bethesda, Maryland has the requirement. Fairfax County, Virginia does not. So they sort of leave it to people's honor about doing their sidewalks. And, of course, some people do and some people don't. There's a thing on the books, but there's not too much enforcement of that.

HOBSON: Well, why is that? Why isn't there more enforcement? Because even the Americans with Disabilities Act calls for things to be accessible to everyone.

BUCKLAND: That's true. I think it's more an issue of just pure people power in order to enforce the reg. Once you get big snowstorms like that, most people are busy out clearing streets and trying to get people back on the road. And so when it comes to keeping the sidewalks and that stuff usable by people in wheelchairs, that's unfortunately, like, one of the last things they get around to, so...

HOBSON: You are able at least to lobby people in Washington on this issue. What are you asking them to do?

BUCKLAND: Well, we do ask them to enforce it better. There is actually a requirement in the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's called the maintenance of accessible features, so it requires that if you have accessible features, which you're required to by the ADA, then you also have a requirement to maintain those accessible features. So we actually have put in a request to the Department of Justice because they're the ones that would enforce either of those sections.

HOBSON: And what have they said?

BUCKLAND: Well, they've actually done some of that in some cities, and they just did include it in all of the other work that they're doing in regards to the cities being accessible. You know, in the local neighborhoods, it really is a matter of people being neighborly too.

HOBSON: Well, you - we should say you've been in a wheelchair since you were about 16. You broke your neck in a diving accident. What has changed? Have things gotten any better since then? That was in 1970.

BUCKLAND: Oh, yes. The world is in a completely different place. Back then in 1970, the school I went to wasn't accessible. You couldn't get in unless somebody drug you up the stairs. There was no curb cuts. The stuff that you see today in regards to accessible parking spaces, accessible bathrooms, all of those things were nonexistent in 1970, and really, frankly, were nonexistent until 1990 after the ADA passed.

HOBSON: Well, do you think it's time for an update of the ADA now and what would you have it do?

BUCKLAND: Well, you know, the ADA was actually just updated in 2008. So I don't know that it's a problem with the law as much as it is just an issue with enforcement.

HOBSON: Well, we've got a lot of people listening to this who probably have sidewalks in front of their homes. What would your message to them be today?

BUCKLAND: Be neighborly. Go out and shovel your sidewalks.

HOBSON: Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living. Kelly, thanks so much for joining us.

BUCKLAND: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.