One of my favourite springtime activities is finding the steepest hill within wheeling distance of my neighbourhood in Montreal, then racing down it with “Hindsight” by Wheelchair Sports Camp blasting through my headphones. I miss that freedom of movement—especially independent movement—in the wintertime. Like many other disabled people, in the colder months, I avoid slicked-over sidewalks, wait for the plow after a heavy snowfall, and sometimes have to stay inside to protect my body from the negative effects of the weather. So I spend a good part of the season working on writing projects, enjoying evening phone calls with friends who are also snowed in, and having living room dance parties.
This year, though, I found myself bristling when I heard others express their dread about how lonely a pandemic winter would be. For me, every winter has many elements like this one: isolation, danger, fear. Snow is just one of the seasonal barriers. It can block access to bus stops, storefronts, and even the path to cross a street or leave a house or apartment. Many people with disabilities face the risk of falling or getting stuck in these conditions, and all of this exacerbates the already negative effect that cold has on some of us, increasing pain or decreasing dexterity. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, falls are the most common cause of injury hospitalizations in the country, responsible for 63 percent of injuries to seniors. There’s also the increased cost of being outside. Warm jackets, for example, can be inaccessible as disabled folks disproportionately live below the poverty line—with rates ranging from 40 percent to 200 percent higher than nondisabled working-age Canadians, according to a report last year by the Public Policy Forum, the Diversity Institute, and the Future Skills Centre. All of this means that the season can magnify our isolation.
Now, for the first time in my life, this heightened isolation may sound familiar to a large portion of the nondisabled population. Canadians are under various forms of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, unlike during the warmer months, when they could catch up in parks, social distance in backyards, and sip drinks on sunny patios, they are now mostly confined to their homes. Subzero temperatures, chilling winds, icy sidewalks, and piles of snow can make it unpleasant or dangerous to spend time outside.
Barriers to gathering, community, work, school, and leisure spaces are now, in a way, a universal experience. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 15 percent of people in this country usually experience the winter blues. But, last year, 40 percent said their mental health had deteriorated since March and as the colder weather approached. No one is able to go where they want when they want. In this way, COVID-19 “kind of levels the playing field,” says Maayan Ziv, founder and CEO of AccessNow, an app that tracks and shares accessibility information. Now, I find myself wondering if these universal barriers will change the way the general public thinks and talks about access.
In many ways, it’s our interfacing with the outside world that distinguishes us as disabled. The long-term implications of contracting COVID-19 and the risk of severe illness that we all live with during this pandemic have shown us that the line between disabled and nondisabled is malleable. Someone may be extremely sick because of the virus and then bounce back to their nondisabled self. Or they may experience lingering symptoms and be disabled in the longer term.
The pandemic has, in some ways, decreased the emphasis on “compulsory able-bodiedness,” a term coined by Robert McRuer, a researcher whose work focuses on queer and crip cultural studies. For instance, writer and disability and transformative-justice movement worker Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha says there is more social permission for winter habits such as staying in, slowing down, and “having your life revolve around cooking and eating” because that’s largely how nondisabled people are now living. Online get-togethers, which were once considered a disability accommodation for some and often came with stigma, have now made their way into the mainstream. Probably the most common example of this is flexibility at work or school due to remote work and online learning.
For some, this winter has actually been less lonely than usual, mostly because so many of our social interactions are online. Ziv, a wheelchair user, says that the regular barriers she would encounter in the colder months have become less pronounced. She uses the example of celebrating New Year’s Eve at a restaurant before the pandemic. Even if the venue were accessible, she would still have experiences of being othered through small interactions, such as a server speaking to the person next to her instead of to her. Staying in also eliminates the need to do the extra work of planning alternate routes or dealing with unreliable infrastructure.
But this equalization is by no means the case for everyone. Piepzna-Samarasinha points out that, while this winter seems more equalized in some ways, “many immunocompromised people and people with many forms of disabilities that make them high risk have even less access to social hangouts and public life” than they did before the pandemic. People with attention issues, such as adults with ADHD, may have a particularly difficult time adjusting to working from home and the additional screen time that brings, while many disabled people who work in the service or care industries don’t have the privilege of working from home at all. For author and activist Eaton Hamilton, this winter represents a significant decrease in contact with their grandkids, their favourite people, because of Hamilton’s elevated risk.
Piepzna-Samarasinha cautions that “separate tiers” have been created or reinforced due to COVID-19. For those in assisted-living buildings, options for distancing are often out of their control—and everyone involved, including staff, is put at higher risk. These risks are even more elevated in the winter because getting dressed and undressed before and after going outside requires a lot of extra time in close contact with care staff.
I’m still optimistic about the equalizing effect that the pandemic has had for some of us living with disabilities, but as I chat with disabled friends on these long COVID-19 evenings, we find ourselves wondering whether these changes will last beyond the pandemic. And will they be adapted further to include and centre the most marginalized among us?
A major component of addressing isolation in future winter months is mandating a livable wage for everyone. Having enough money to choose where you live, take a taxi when you need to, or buy durable outerwear can mean the difference between seeing a friend or staying home to avoid barriers like unpredictable bus schedules and inaccessible transit stations. The Canadian Mental Health Association has also supported an initiative for universal basic income because financial security is a major determinant of health.
When it comes to clearing snow in high-foot-traffic areas such as downtowns, businesses have an important role to play because their entranceways occupy a lot of sidewalk space. A growing number of cities, including Sapporo, Japan; Reykjavik, Iceland; Oslo, Norway; Helsinki, Finland; and Holland, Michigan, have opted for heated sidewalks, a solution that can be more cost-efficient than traditional snow-clearing methods. This infrastructure, which has been in place for more than fifty years in some cities, seems promising because it allows for a lot more control and eliminates the delay between when the snow falls and when it’s cleared. In 2015, Montreal considered heated sidewalks for a 2.2 kilometre stretch of Saint-Catherine Street, near downtown, but the city ended up abandoning the project, citing its cost.
And, while there have been efforts made to improve snow-clearing in Canadian cities—fines instituted in Edmonton, public-awareness campaigns in Toronto—residents and municipal workers don’t always follow the rules. It’s often in the details: where snowplows may unintentionally create barriers with their tracks or dump snow on a curb cut, the little ramp that is required by mobility-aid users and people pushing strollers to get from the sidewalk to the street.
Now that gyms and community centres are closed in several parts of the country, Canadian cities are revisiting their snow-clearing policies to offer pedestrians more room for exercise. In November, Toronto considered extending snow-clearing to residential sidewalks not usually covered by municipal services. The city ultimately decided against the proposal, much to the dismay of local residents. But it should not have taken a pandemic to push these discussions into the mainstream. Next winter, when the threat of COVID-19 has (hopefully) subsided, creating an accessible urban environment should still be a pressing concern.
Part of the change may involve us questioning our biases. For me, that means considering the messaging around me about how a body and mind should be: is it upright or wobbly, productive, tired, happy, thin? Should icy sidewalks be hazards to be navigated, or dangers that must be prevented? Another part may involve bolstering initiatives that have popped up throughout the course of the pandemic, such as community groups where neighbours help each other pick up groceries or shovel driveways. But policy changes will continue to be necessary.
Progress isn’t inevitable, but this pandemic has offered us an opportunity to rethink the way that we gather. Some workplaces and communities are already building flexibility that will remain even after the pandemic ends. By combining the opportunity for empathy that this winter presents with actions based on the disability-justice principle of viewing all people as valuable, perhaps we can counter our cities’ trend of advancing while leaving some people behind.