Kemmeter Column: Residents urged to clear walks, curb cuts
By Gene Kemmeter
The Portage County Disability Coalition is encouraging area businesses and residents to keep their sidewalks and wheelchair curb cuts at intersections clear of snow and ice so people, especially those with disabilities, can get through.
The Coalition, formerly known as the Portage County Coalition for Adults with Disabilities, is beginning an effort to make more people aware of the difficulty persons with disabilities face every day, said Samantha J. Szynskie, director of Community Partners of Portage County and a member of the Coalition.
Because more people are staying indoors again this year because of the pandemic, Szynskie said members of the Coalition are compiling an informative packet to distribute to businesses in the area, including the downtown, Crossroads Commons and bus stop locations so everyone can experience improved access during the winter season.
Pedestrian travel can be especially difficult, a situation exacerbated by the almost daily light snowfall this area has received in recent weeks. When it snows, she said, people with limited mobility encounter issues with getting around. An accessible route should be a minimum of 36 inches wide, not just a path the width of a shovel.
Handicapped parking spaces are sometimes used for snow storage, and snowbanks and icy walkways create barriers to access services and local businesses. Individuals who use a van with a life need to be able to extend that lift into the access aisle adjacent to a handicapped parking space.
A ramp to a building should also be shoveled first to clear the snow and ice before the steps. The ramp can be used by all people, but the steps cannot.
This year, the Coalition has created some helpful best practices guides for “Accessibility for all Seasons,” along with an awareness campaign to help improve conditions on sidewalks, at bus stops and in parking lots, Szynskie said.
The Coalition is asking residents to “Adopt a Curb Cut,” the wheelchair ramps at intersections that seem to collect all the snow from the street as snow plows go around a corner to clear the roads of snow. People in wheelchairs are unable to use an unshoveled ramp and have to travel in the road, creating a dangerous situation.
Szynskie said the Coalition plans to push the campaign this year and then grow it next year in its second year. “We’ll approach local businesses this year and then work more on information to citizens next year,” she said. “We started small, but every year we want to bring awareness to the program.”
“It’s important to make everyone aware of the situation with disabilities,” she said, “because almost everyone is going to experience some form of physical disability in life as they age.”
The curb cuts are often ignored because the first duty of snowplows is to clear the roads of snow, and it takes quite some time to clear every street in the city. Trying to clear each ramp would take plows too much time, leaving roads unplowed. So that duty falls to residents.
Individuals with visual impairments especially need walkways free of ice and snow. Clear sidewalks are also appreciated by mail carriers, delivery drivers and emergency personnel.
“The city will support it wholeheartedly,” Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza said about the Coalition’s efforts, which he has been promoting since learning about them.
“We need citizens with good hearts to put the effort into action,” he said. “Citizens need to clear fire hydrants and curb cuts. Such actions are necessary to be part of a thriving community.”
He pointed out the city has an ordinance that homeowners and building occupants are responsible for removing snow and ice from the sidewalk in front of their house or building within 24 hours of the end of any snowfall.
If the snow is not removed by homeowners or occupants, the city may have it removed by a contractor, and the city will add the bill to property taxes for the property owner. Having to pay those bills is a major complaint among people who don’t clear their sidewalks.
The Police and Street Departments both ask that all residents help keep their neighborhoods safe by shoveling the wheelchair curb cuts at intersections, and pay particular attention to sidewalks and crosswalks in school zones.
The Fire Department appreciates residents’ help in keeping fire hydrants clear of snow and ice. Firefighters need to access fire hydrants in case of a fire, and keeping the fire hydrants clear of snow and ice does save people’s homes.
Together, the people of Portage County can provide safe access to everyone in the community.