When I was a community-based occupational therapist, a worry would come over me in late Autumn as I felt the change of the air on my skin. I knew that Winter would bring with it challenges for the clients I served in my role on a complex needs community support team. The term “complex needs” referred to the fact that our clients had some combination of a mental illness, a developmental disability, substance use disorder, and multi-system involvement (i.e justice/corrections). Suffice to say, these folks experienced significant challenges on a good day. When winter rolled around, I was concerned about the additional impacts it had. Mostly, how it would isolate them. Regardless of the diagnosis, in my mind, the most pervasive and detrimental issue they faced was social isolation. Loneliness exacerbated their existing circumstance to the point of unbearableness. It was not uncommon for me to hear how a lack of meaningful connection with others drove some to consider suicide.
Societal stigma, poverty, and the impacts of the their health issues already made it difficult for them to leave their homes to access their community and meet other people. So, you can imagine how something like uncleared sidewalks could affect their desire to venture out. Every client I supported lived under the poverty line and didn’t have access to a vehicle. And even if they could afford it, most couldn’t operate a car due to health issues. To top it off, almost all of them had some physical disability that made mobility challenging for them. Most of my work was focused on finding meaningful social opportunities and working with clients to develop their confidence to be out in the community. These folks had experienced substantial mocking and teasing from others throughout their lives, so it took quite a bit of work to get them comfortable to be out in the world. When winter (and the associated physical barriers that came with snowfall) arrived, it made a difficult situation impossible for some, and it seemed that all the momentum we built was lost. My clients retreated back into their homes – and sadly, themselves.
Winter wasn’t the cause of their affliction, but it sure made it worse.
More obvious than the mental health implications of uncleared sidewalks are the physical risks. I once worked on an “alternate level of care” unit at a hospital, which was basically a unit for people who had been admitted for an injury and didn’t have appropriate housing to be discharged to once they were rehabilitated. They’d “live” at the hospital until we could find them safe and supportive housing. It cost the system (and taxpayers) obscene amounts of money to keep them in care, but there wasn’t an alternative and we couldn’t put these folks out on the street. Patients on the unit were often poor, socially isolated seniors who had acquired an injury, often from a fall. They usually didn’t have family who were available to provide support, so these people were alone, in so many regards. A common injury I encountered was hip fractures, sometimes caused by slips or falls on uncleared sidewalks. Hip fractures are very difficult to recover from and are associated with the onset of other debilitating mental and physical illnesses. When the lucky few did eventually regain some of their mobility, they were understandably terrified to walk again in their communities because of a fear of falling. Snowy, icy sidewalks often either caused their injuries or significantly impacted their ability to walk after sustaining one.
Yesterday, as I was taking the bus in Waterloo, I looked out the window and saw an elderly woman hunched over, struggling to pull her cart over a windrow that blocked access from the sidewalk into the crossing at an intersection. It was unbearable to watch and I knew she probably dealt with this on a regular basis. Knowing how difficult this was for her, I wanted to jump off the bus to applaud her tenacity for venturing out in her community which with snowfall, transformed into a dangerous place.
Beyond the health implications, sidewalk snow clearance has impacts on caregivers of children. A few local parents have documented the perils of using strollers:
Here is the @CityKitchener parking garage on Duke Street at 9:20 am where huge mounds of snow were dumped on the sidewalk to ensure clear entry for cars. I was forced onto the road with my 3 y/o while getting him to daycare. (Also, using a sled b/c I can't use my stroller.) pic.twitter.com/TStiiTRdsJ
— Emily Urquhart (@emilyjurquhart) January 9, 2018
Interestingly, Sweden takes a gendered approach to snow clearance and prioritizes the clearing of sidewalks and routes to schools and daycares. I learned about this a few years ago at a conference while participating on a panel with Daniel Firth, the Chief Strategy Officer of Transport for the City of Stockholm. They put equity at the centre of snow clearance policy. Imagine that?
As it stands, both Kitchener and Waterloo put the onus on residents/businesses to clear sidewalks after a snowfall. After experiencing three winters here, it’s obvious this “solution” isn’t sufficient in ensuring an accessible community. A local transportation action group, Tritag, recently released a report that indicated that while walking a short distance in Kitchener, there’s at least a 50% chance you’ll encounter a sidewalk obstructed with snow. This is terrible, to put it lightly. It would cost residents approximately $26 a year in taxes for the City to take on sidewalk snow maintenance and I’ve heard from countless people that they would be more than happy to pay that amount to ensure an accessible city.
The City of Kitchener isn’t the only municipality that doesn’t take responsibility for sidewalk snow clearance. This is a common issue in winter cities across North America. Most of these cities like to tout equity and inclusion, but it’s hard to believe they are committed to these values if they fail at a very basic level to make their communities accessible to all, year round. Any city that gets substantial snow should take responsibility for clearing sidewalks. If you live in a winter city that doesn’t, I encourage you to speak out about it and let your elected officials know how sidewalk snow clearance affects you and/or your neighbours. We need to keep the pressure on. Our current situation is unacceptable. And, if you can, take pictures of the sidewalks and share them on social media with the hashtag #snowbility. In the Waterloo Region, I suggest we use #snowbilityWR. (tweet me your pictures!)
Ultimately, I see this is as an issue of human rights. Community accessibility should not be seasonal.
Imagine that with every big snowfall came the worry that you couldn’t access your community. It isn’t fair to our neighbours with mobility issues or folks who use strollers to continue on without city sponsored sidewalk maintenance. We can do better. Let’s make winter enjoyable for everyone.
Update: I was interviewed about this blog post. You can listen here:
Interested in bringing me to your city to give a talk about the ideas discussed in this blog post? Get in touch by clicking here.