Winter Access

Here in Pittsburgh, we sit just a few hours south of the Great Lakes region snowbelt that runs along the Lake Erie shoreline and covers parts of northeastern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania. While Pittsburgh doesn’t get the quantity of snow in the snowbelt, the average snowfall during the winter season is around 44 inches, last year Pittsburgh experienced close to 60 inches of snow. This winter, Pittsburgh is expected to get higher than average snowfall once more based on Pacific Ocean climate patterns.

What does all this snowfall mean for people with disabilities?

Often winter weather equates to additional environmental barriers for people with disabilities that impact mobility. While streets may be largely cleared for travel, sidewalks, curb cuts, ramps, and parking lots are often viewed as less important.  These key access points are largely the spaces that people with mobility disabilities need to travel to work, school, grocery stores, movie theaters and other places that are a part of their daily living experiences.

Snow and other winter weather, such as sleet, ice, and low temperatures, can also impact services that people with disabilities need access to, such as personal assistant services. Many people with disabilities have already received disruption to these services due to the impact of COVID-19, but poor weather conditions may add yet more barriers to these services that people with disabilities need. Personal assistants provide aide to people with disabilities including household chores, running errands, bathing, cooking, and getting ready for work.

Does this mean that people with disabilities can’t get to work in the winter months?

The short answer is no. While these conditions seem insurmountable, you’d be surprised at the lengths some of our employees have gone to because they don’t want to miss work. Doesn’t that statement alone say it all – they don’t want to miss work.

A high-level leader at one of our customers work locations once shared a story about employee turn out during snowy conditions. This individual had left early due to travel distance and road conditions and had anticipated that when he arrived at work that there would be very few, if any, employees yet on location. As he arrived, he noticed a set of tire tracks in the snow that he believed was from the team that salted the sidewalks leading to the building. There were no footprints to indicate other employees had arrived. When he got inside, he was greeted by an empty floor, save one employee, laughing at being the first to arrive. This employee was someone living with cerebral palsy which strongly affected his mobility, leading him to use a motorized wheelchair. The tracks our customer had seen were from the wheels on his chair.

While it has been my experience that people with disabilities have demonstrated great ingenuity and perseverance to overcome barriers created by winter weather, steps should be taken to increase access during this time. The challenges winter weather creates for people with disabilities are very real and can seem unsurmountable when society relegates needs of this community to the backburner.

How can we address winter access barriers to be more inclusive of people with disabilities?

Be attentive to pathways used by people with disabilities. While employers, retailers and others may take care to ensure roadways are cleared for their employees, there is often areas left unchecked. Ensuring vendors and maintenance personnel that plow snow from parking lots or clean sidewalks, for example, do not leave snow piles in accessible parking spaces, cover curb cuts or ramps may increase safety and access for individuals with disabilities. The plus side of taking this action is that all employees will have a better experience with getting to work safely if these pathways are cleared and salted.

Designate a space for service animal care. People with disabilities who rely on service animals as an accommodation need to be attentive to the care and safety of those animals. Providing a place free from foot traffic near or in the lobby to create a welcoming environment. This space allows employees to remove or put on booties that protect their service animal’s paws, clean them from salt that can burn or sting the animal, and dry them of snow, sleet, rain, and ice. It also decreases the chance that these employees or their service animals may be bumped into or stepped on by others entering or leaving the building – a jarring and disorienting experience. Employers can even go a step further and ensure there is a clear path to take the service animal outside when needed.

Allow flexibility to manage poor weather conditions. Many employers have become more adept at managing their workforce remotely during the COVID pandemic. Even prior to this, some forward-thinking companies made provisions to allow personnel flexibility to work remotely or adjust work shifts to accommodate poor weather conditions. This flexibility allowed employees to be more attentive to their safety and avoid creating congested roadways during snow and ice storms which allowed roadways to be cleaned more easily. If your organization does allow for this flexibility on a case-by-case basis, please keep in mind that for some individuals with disabilities, access to accessible transport such as paratransit services may require advance notice of at least 24 hours to process a change.

Avoid acting from a place of stigma and bias. Stigma and bias can make itself known in a number of ways in these situations. Whether it is falling prey to the idea that ‘this is just the way it is’ or ‘there is nothing to be done’ or thinking ‘people with disabilities won’t be able to do this, because it would be difficult for me’ stigma and bias get in the way of innovation and inclusion – two concepts that historically go hand in hand. Remember the story I told earlier about the person with a disability who was first to arrive to work on a snowy day? Don’t underestimate what people with disabilities can and will do to maintain competitive employment.

That being said, winter weather can be a very real barrier for people with disabilities, rather than the inconvenience it is for those who do not have to rely on cleared pathways, public transport, or personal assistant services. Thinking that a person with a disability is exaggerating circumstances based on one’s personal experiences with snow being an inconvenience does not take into account the disparate impact to members of this community.

The important thing to remember is that by understanding the disparate impact that winter weather has on the disability community, we can become better equipped to find resolutions that increase access for all people. The bottom line is that truly embracing diversity means creating an inclusive experience for everyone.

There is a proverb that states that ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ What next great invention is waiting on us to simply remove the limitations created by not seeing inclusion as necessity?