Weather Presents Challenges to People with Disabilities

Winter can be a difficult time for anyone to get around, but for people with disabilities, the issues are amplified. This winter seems especially irksome, given the increased amount of snow, ice, and frigid temperatures we’ve been experiencing in Minnesota compared to our more recent, mild winters. These kinds of conditions create problem spots for people with disabilities, including the high potential they create for isolation, difficulty getting adequate transportation, and increased cost of living expenses.

John Tschida, director of Public Policy and Research at Courage Center, outlined the issues faced by people with disabilities in Minnesota during the winter months. When many people think of the issue, he said, they think of people in wheelchairs. But getting around is a problem for people with any number of disabilities, said Tschida. Some examples he provided are people with fibromyalgia, who experience pain in the cold weather, and people who walk with canes or have difficulty walking at all.

Snow removal can represent one of the biggest problems for people with disabilities. In Tschida’s neighborhood, the local Cub Scouts often shovel snow for people who can’t do it themselves.

Rick Cardenas, co-director of ACT (Advocating Change Together), thinks this winter is actually less of a problem than previous years for people with disabilities. He said the city and bus companies have been diligent about clearing snow at loading areas for busses and at curbs.

But Tschida says transportation is always an ongoing problem for people with disabilities during the winter months. Tschida cites the Twin Cities’ current Metro Mobility program as not meeting the needs of disabled people in the metro area. “As the public policy director here, I talk with legislators and with people who run the program,” he said. “I recognize they have a very difficult job to do.”

Tschida explains the government-run program simply doesn’t have enough busses to accommodate everyone. According to him, state lawmakers are scared of the $16 to $17 per ride in public subsidies (translating into $19 million a year) that it takes to run the program (people who use the system pay about $2.50 during peak hours). Things usually smooth out in the summer, he adds, because people with disabilities can get to regular busses, and many regular busses are now equipped to accommodate even people in wheelchairs.

But the months between December and February represent the worst months of the year for people trying to get rides through Metro Mobility, because the denial rates are the highest during these months. The percentage of denial rates range from three to six percent. “But those numbers don’t capture the number of people who have stopped calling [for rides] because they know they won’t get them,” he said. Most often,  Tschida continues, people call in to get rides to either go to a doctor appointment or get to and from work.

Getting to and from work is a huge issue, he said. “We have employees here at Courage Center who are scheduled to arrive at 9 a.m. but are arriving at 7 a.m. because that was the only ride available to them. Some of these same individuals must stay at work until 7 p.m. for the same reason. This is arranging your life to meet the needs of the transportation system.”

Dave Jacobson, general manager at Metro Mobility, agreed that improving the program has been extremely challenging. “Every year we ask for additional funds. We’re pretty limited in what we can do.” Jacobson notes that a legislative study has given Metro Mobility several areas to focus on to try to improve the system.

Despite the system’s problems, Jacobson said, “When comparing 1999 to 2000, our ridership is actually up 2.7 percent, at over a million rides.”

Jacobson said Metro Mobility is taking a variety of approaches to keep the ride denial rate down, such as a supplemental service that has added ten extra busses, offers 3,000 rides a month at peak time, and contracts with additional providers. Another example he provided was assured rides, wherein anyone using Metro Mobility three days a week can use a taxi or private provider through a voucher system.

Metro Mobility differs from other bus programs because the drivers come right to the patron’s door and assist them with getting into the buildings they are going to.  For many people with a disability, they do not have the option of taking a regular bus or taxi if they cannot get to it.

Lolly Lijewski, an advocate for the Center for Independent Living, said the center provides a list of private providers who provide transportation to people with disabilities (rides are expensive, at more than $16 per ride). The center also provides a “frustration hotline” for people who tried to get rides through Metro Mobility but were denied. Lijewski states the center prefers that people contact Metro Mobility’s customer service number first (see below) so that documented complaints can be registered by Metro Mobility.

The center also uses documented complaints for testimony at the Legislature. This year is a budget year and an important one for Metro Mobility to get more funding from the general fund.

In addition to transportation problems, higher heating and electricity costs during winter represent a significant challenge for people with disabilities. For many disabled people who receive health insurance through government-subsidized programs, increased heating and electricity costs can force them to make some tough decisions. “They have to make some hard decisions because they’re living on a fixed budget,” Tschida notes. Often, these increased costs can mean much less discretionary income these people could be using to get to the store to buy groceries or widen their social circle, he said.

Is Minnesota ahead or behind other states in offering assistance to people with disabilities during the winter? Tschida says the state does a good job with its energy assistance program to help all disadvantaged people in making their electricity payments, and that some states do better, but some do worse.

As far as transportation goes, Tschida said that when comparing Minnesota to other states, “We haven’t found a real good system anywhere, particularly when it comes to states with very cold weather.”

Tschida admits that resources for people with disabilities can often be difficult to find, but they are out there. Some of his suggestions include contacting the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living (see number below), local scout troops for snow shoveling, local churches and schools, and local newspapers.  He said the Internet is also a resource, because people can order food or other items on-line and have them delivered to their homes.

“I encourage people to reach out to organizations and not be home-bound,” Tschida says. “There is assistance out there-it may not be easy to find, but there are people willing to help. People need to pick up the phone.” Cardenas agreed with Tschida, commenting that people should talk with their legislators and city council members about putting tax rebate monies to more effective use.
Organizations and Resources:

* Senior Ombudsman’s Office (covers the Metro area): Ruth Kildow, (612) 673-3004-call to get a copy of the office’s flyer “May We Help You,” which lists a variety of resources for people who need help during the winter months.

* Handiworks Program (a program of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches; chore and maintenance program based on availability of workers): (612) 721-8687.

* Public Works of Minneapolis: (612) 673-5720.

* Metropolitan Center For Independent Living: Lolly Lijewski, (651) 603-2022. Frustration Hotline: (651) 603-2022 (call Metro Mobility’s customer service number first, at (651) 602-1111).

* City Information and Complaint Office (for problems with snow removal in Saint Paul): (651) 266-8500.