Wheeling Through a Winter Wonderland

Winter weather evokes mixed emotions in adults. Children love this time of year when school can be canceled on a Wednesday and snowmen dot the landscape, while adults wrestle between the guiltless joy of having an excuse to stay indoors with a book, hot chocolate and Netflix—and the inevitable loathing of de-icing, shoveling and the worsening of already terrible traffic. Among the black and white of the average person’s view exists a hidden realm of winter trials reserved for people with disabilities.

Remember the Oregon Trail? It was a computer game designed around the journey of 19th-century pioneer families. Schools used it to keep students busy on days where recess was held indoors. It has been revamped over the years, but the premise remains constant; pick a profession, purchase a wagon and supplies and begin the perilous journey to find a new life in Oregon. Navigating the winter months elicits a similar sense of danger for persons with disabilities but instead of avoiding snake bites, typhoid and dysentery we are concerned with snow-blocked curb cuts, zero traction and inadequate shoveling. 

Consider a typical weekday. You wake up, get ready and head to work. Maybe you stop to grab a coffee. I imagine most people feel very much in control of their daily routine; nothing can halt your commute outright—even if your city or town’s public transportation is delayed. For people with disabilities, it’s different, particularly in winter. There are no guarantees that you can make it ten feet down the sidewalk let alone across questionably plowed streets or up icy hills. While these issues can affect everyone; slipping on the ice is dangerous, as is attempting to cross a snow covered road, people with disabilities, at times, cannot even attempt the journey.

Even if nature herself conspires to keep you from the world, you can fight back. Much like Oregon Trail, it requires planning, preparation, and real-time decision making. Being prepared means being informed, so following winter weather reports, knowing how they might affect your commute, and identifying back-up travel routes or resources can help. Here are some questions I ask myself to help plan for my commute during the winter months:

  • How much extra travel time will I need?
  • How well does my apartment building/HOA/community take care of snow?
  • Are there businesses or residences along my intended path? Who is responsible for sidewalk clearing and what rules govern how well it must be cleared?
  • What other paths can I take if my intended path is impassable? 
  • If I get to my destination, will I be able to return safely? 
  • Do I have a person I can call in an emergency?
  • Will subway station elevators affect my progress, and can I get around the dysfunction?
  • What are my back-up options?
  • If the weather is too dangerous, will my job allow me to telework or use a flexible schedule?

These concerns affect people with disabilities regardless of activity. I applied most of my questions around traveling to and from work but arguably equally pressing matters include groceries, socialization and the ability to live a complete life in your community, regardless of the weather. Fortunately, there are tools and resources that exist to help. If you commute using public transit, start by visiting the transit authority’s website, downloading their smart phone app or following their alert account on social media. I live in Washington, DC, so I regularly visit the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) website, which connects to any SmartTrip account and offers a text alert system that informs users about delays or when elevators are out at stations of their choosing. It isn’t a foolproof system but it at least forces individuals to pay more attention to issues that may affect them (myself included). In some cities, Uber has introduced an option that allows users to select a wheelchair accessible vehicle.

Assistive technology (AT) is another way to help ease or improve winter travel.  Since joining New Editions as a project coordinator, I discovered AbleData (www.abledata.com), a database of assistive technology that New Editions operates for the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).   AbleData allows visitors to search the AT by keyword, category, or a variety of other search criteria. For example, Wheelblades, which resemble mini skis, are designed to be locked onto the front wheels of a wheelchair to spread weight over a greater surface area covered with snow. Stabilicers are ice grippers designed for use by individuals with mobility impairments. The site also includes accessible snow removal devices like wheeled snow shovels and tips to make DIY solutions, like snow tires for mobility devices, and a variety of other AT options and solutions applicable for the winter months.

Another often forgotten tool is a reliable support system. Independence is a wonderful achievement but being independent does not mean going it alone. Making friends and establishing relationships can both improve the quality of an individual’s life socially and give you some peace of mind if the “trail” gets too rough. In my personal experience, I’ve found that many persons with disabilities feel some level of shame when asking others for help, as if doing so inconveniences that person so much that they might disassociate with them. An unimaginably thin line separates pride and stubbornness. I advise anyone that will listen not to let either be a hindrance to your life or safety during these cold months.

I’m not ready to hibernate for the winter based solely on Jack Frost’s whim. Winter is an adventure that should be respected. As long as you are aware of your own limitations and have made preparations where appropriate, any pioneer can conquer the trail and make it all the way to you own personal “Oregon.”


It may also be beneficial to check the appstore (if you own a smartphone) to install a metro app – I use iTransDC but there are others.

Anthony Oberg is a Project Coordinator at New Editions. He is a recent graduate of American University’s Masters of Public Administration program. His personal experience with disability has influenced his desire to pursue a career in which he can use his personal and professional skills to improve lives.