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Winter storms more than an inconvenience for people with disabilities

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  March 20, 2013 10:46 AM

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Glen Road snowbank.jpg

Jeremy C. Fox for

On Glen Road in Jamaica Plain, a shoveled path ended abruptly in a snowbank that reached a height of three feet.

When snow falls in Boston, the city’s streets, sidewalks, and plazas become a patchwork terrain.

Some are shoveled or plowed clean, but others get shoveled midway through the storm then ignored while more snow accumulates, or have only an uneven trail cut or kicked through the powder. Some spots are entirely untouched, while others become dumping grounds for snow cleared from other areas.

Accumulated snow inconveniences everyone, but the obstacle can be insurmountable for those who use wheelchairs, motorized scooters, canes, or crutches — even parents with strollers.

Advocates said the wave of snowstorms that hit Boston over the past six weeks has forced people with disabilities to risk their safety in city streets or to simply stay inside.

“Many people are trapped in their homes, especially if they don’t live in a big apartment building that gets shoveled out,” said Karen Schneiderman, a senior advocacy specialist at the Boston Center for Independent Living.

“It’s emotionally unsafe and it’s physically unsafe,” said Schneiderman, 58, who uses a wheelchair and has had the experience of being snowbound. “It’s very depressing to know that you have no access to your sidewalk, let alone moving around the way you ordinarily do.”

Without enough space to navigate a sidewalk, people with disabilities can wind up taking the long way around — sometimes an extremely long way.

Donna Folan is an actress, director, performing arts consultant, and educator who uses a mobility scooter. In late February, she said, she took the Broadway Bridge from the South End to South Boston and found that while stairs to the sidewalk had been cleared, only about half the ramp was shoveled.

Unable to proceed, she rode back to the other end of the bridge and made a return trip in the roadway, adding 15 or 20 minutes to the trip.

Folan, 50, said this issue doesn’t just affect those with permanent disabilities, and there needs to be greater awareness.

“This really needs to be looked at in a different way, to the benefit of all,” she said. “Whether or not you’ve broken your leg, or whether you were born with something you deal with every day, it’s a challenge.”

Kristen McCosh, the City of Boston’s commissioner for persons with disabilities, said many people with disabilities travel in streets because sidewalks, and especially curb cuts with accessible ramps, are not fully cleared.

McCosh, who uses a wheelchair, said the commission worked with community residents to develop a list of high-priority areas for snow removal that includes MBTA stations, senior living centers, and commercial districts.

She continues to compile public complaints and share them with the Public Works Department, she said, and the department is as responsive as it can be, but lacks the resources to tackle every problem area.

“Pedestrian access is one of the things I spend the most time working on, and the city is more receptive to working with us than I think they ever have been in the past,” McCosh said. “It’s a priority of our Public Works Commissioner Joanne Massaro, and of Mayor Menino.”

McCosh said a city ordinance requiring landowners to shovel out a 42-inch-wide path was amended in 2011, after another brutal winter, to add a requirement that corner lot owners clear curb cuts. But the city did little outreach during last year’s mild winter, and many haven’t gotten the message.

“We still need to do a better job of letting people know that’s their responsibility,” she said.

Getting and sharing information is one of the biggest challenges in making streets and sidewalks more accessible, McCosh and disability advocates said.

Schneiderman said adjacent and overlapping jurisdictions can make it unclear who is responsible for clearing an area.

At Forest Hills Station in Jamaica Plain, she said, riders emerge from MBTA property and step onto city-owned sidewalks and streets. But it’s unclear who owns the median dividing New Washington Street, she said, and the Southwest Corridor Park on the other side is owned by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

“This is a big problem for people, because very often there’s no way to get a good answer when you call the city,” Schneiderman said.

McCosh said her office has worked with the DCR, Department of Transportation, and Massachusetts Port Authority to clarify jurisdictions, and conflicts have mostly been worked out. But front-line staff in some city and state agencies may not have all the information. She is working to make it more accessible, she said.

South End resident Keith P. Jones said he shouldn’t have think three and four steps ahead, as he does now, simply to navigate his way from his home to Back Bay Station in a motorized wheelchair.

He wants the city to embrace innovative thinking, perhaps constructing heated sidewalks, as some cities have begun to do, or sponsoring a competition to encourage planners at Harvard and MIT to devise ways to use green energy to heat those paths.

Jones doesn’t understand why a better system doesn’t already exist.

“People have lived in Boston almost 400 years, but there seems to be no efficient way of dealing with snow removal for even those without disabilities,” said Jones, 43. “Boston hasn’t moved from Florida to Massachusetts and suddenly needs to figure out how to deal with snow.”

The City of Boston encourages residents to report snow removal issues through the Mayor’s 24-Hour Hotline at 617-635-4500, online at, or through the Citizens Connect application for mobile devices, available for download at

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Downtown on Twitter: @YTDowntown.

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