By LAURA VANPUYMBROUCK CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Sooner or later, winter brings snow to Chicago. Businesses and homeowners that fail to shovel and maintain their sidewalks and pathways can cause frustration for anyone trying to navigate down a block. But for a person with mobility issues, this barrier can be life-altering. It lends to increased isolation and an inability to participate in daily activities, including health-related ones.
The Americans With Disabilities Act requires businesses to maintain their public walkways. In Chicago, most do a good job. However, residential neighborhoods often seem unaware of how vital it is for seniors and people with disabilities to have a widely shoveled path for safe travel down the block. Every winter, I see my block become checkered with cleared pathways at one house followed by mounds of snow at the next, leaving a person with mobility concerns to either stay trapped inside their home or use the dangerous center of the street. Unshoveled walkways occur despite the fact that the city’s municipal code passed in 2015 states that homeowners “must clear a path at least 5 feet wide on all of the sidewalks adjacent to your property, including any crosswalk ramps.”
While the law was needed, it’s only helpful if it’s enforced. Although it calls for homeowners to be fined up to $500 and businesses up to $1,000 for failure to clear their sidewalks of snow, few citations are typically issued. With this lack of enforcement, many end up neglecting their walkways throughout the winter.
As a result, people with mobility limitations end up canceling doctor visits and missing meetings, work or school. In my own experience as an occupational therapist, I have often received anxious phone calls from clients unable to make their therapy appointment because of unpassable routes caused by accumulated snow. For anyone who uses ADA paratransit services, drivers will only wait five minutes for a pickup and will charge the person a “no-show” fee. Unexpected obstacles encountered trying to get through inches of ice and snow create undue and unjust barriers.
Many Chicago homeowners will offer a helping hand to a neighbor who needs assistance with shoveling. Unfortunately, while the city of Chicago’s website still promotes a program called Chicago Shovels that matched volunteers to those in need of shoveling, it was canceled last winter because of a lack of volunteers. Some suburbs, including Oak Lawn and Evanston, offer some form of a volunteer shoveling program. Chicago provides an online service request through 311 that can be made 15 hours after a snowfall if snow has not been removed.
All of this makes it even more important to embrace the idea that shoveling should be a shared responsibility of neighbors. It is the easiest solution, and might even promote health. Studies have shown that bonding with neighbors and increasing social networks can work to lower stress and improve self-rated health. Shoveling is a good form of neighborly bonding and could have long-lasting benefits for everyone.
This year, I plan to distribute the city of Chicago door hanger that informs homeowners of their responsibility to keep their sidewalks clear of snow. I’m hopeful this might improve the walkability of my block for everyone, but I’m especially sure it could make a life-changing difference for the many Chicagoans with mobility issues.
Laura VanPuymbrouck is an assistant professor in the College of Health Sciences in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Rush University.