During the winter, Ed Kennedy has learned to call ahead before he goes anywhere.
Kennedy, an advocate at the Center for Independent Living, uses a manual wheelchair to get around. His chair gets stuck in the snow and will slide on ice, which means navigating around the city after snowfall is often an obstacle course.
Some businesses and restaurants shovel their sidewalks and walkways. Others leave the accessibility ramp iced over, making it impossible for him to get up it. When he calls asking if a walkway is shoveled and clear, some businesses tell him they don’t really do that.
“Spokane has a policy of businesses need to do their own walkways, and that is so hit or miss,” he said.
Kennedy has been a chair user for about five years, after a broken leg compounded existing health problems to make walking tiring and painful.
On the best of days, navigating a city with a mobility disability can be challenging. People have to contend with limited hours for public transit, blocked sidewalks and other obstacles.
Add snow and ice into the mix, and people who use wheelchairs, scooters and other mobility devices often are inclined to stay home.
Sidewalks are often a mix of bare pavement, ice and snow, depending on which businesses or homeowners have decided to shovel. Even where people do shovel, piles of snow from plows or snowblowers can block the curb ramps at the end of blocks, effectively trapping anyone who can’t step over them.
Kennedy said few people take time to think about making streets accessible for people with disabilities, during poor weather or otherwise.
“The most frustrating thing about it is we go through this every year and everyone gets all excited about it and nothing changes,” Kennedy said.
The icy weather has impacted paratransit, a door-to-door transit option provided by the Spokane Transit Authority for people with disabilities that make it impossible for them to use a fixed route bus.
Though STA buses have ramps and wheelchair lifts, some people can’t access bus stops or routes because of mobility issues. Other users may have cognitive disabilities that make them unable to get off at the right stop without assistance.
Many people with disabilities have trouble shoveling their own sidewalks and driveways, which can prevent paratransit vans from getting to them.
Steve Blaska, operations manager for STA, said 136 paratransit trips were canceled this week because the driver couldn’t safely get to someone’s door due to snow and ice. That’s a small percentage of the nearly 7,700 trips booked this week, but still affects people who may have few or no other options for getting around.
The city encourages people who can’t shovel their own driveways to call 211, where they can be referred to a Catholic Charities program to provide volunteers to shovel for them, city spokeswoman Julie Happy said.
Blaska said if he knew of other options available for paratransit customers, he’d be happy to refer people to them as well.
There’s currently no coordinated service for people who need shoveling assistance to request help from people who are willing to volunteer, though Happy said the city is having discussions about creating a more robust system.
Bad weather causes more fluctuations in demand for rides, which can lead to delays. On Monday, when snow was deep, many riders canceled trips, leaving paratransit with only 826 rides. On Thursday, paratransit had 1,651 trips.
Snow further delayed paratransit vehicles. This week, the service was only on time for 75 percent of trips, Blaska said. Usually, they’re 92 to 94 percent on time.
“The challenge with paratransit is since it’s door-to-door service, we’re on the side streets and we’re in alleys and we’re in parking lots,” he said. Those places usually are the last to be plowed.
Happy agreed with Kennedy that both shoveling and enforcement can be spotty, but encouraged people to call and report businesses that aren’t keeping sidewalks clear.
“We recognize the need. We can’t always force the people to be compliant although we do respond when we get calls,” she said.
Kennedy and his wife have learned to travel with a small shovel in their van. Earlier this week, she helped clear a path to the door of the office building he works in off Mission Avenue in Spokane Valley, where efforts to plow the parking lot had left snow in front of the door.
“There’s places we want to go, but are people going to help us get there?” Kennedy asked.
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