Snowstorms make campus travel difficult for disabled

BY MIKE MERAR
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 3, 2011

The vast amount of snow piled on pathways and city streets throughout the winter months is a source of stress for some faculty and students, particularly commuters and those with disabilities.

While many still attend class after snowstorms, others choose not to brave the slippery sidewalks, saying the conditions are due to miscommunication between the city and the University’s snow removal operations that operate on different schedules.

Frank Marsik, associate research scientist at the University’s Space Physics Research Laboratory, wrote in an e-mail interview that winter storms can be dangerous for people commuting and walking to class. He wrote that pedestrians also cause distractions for drivers, who are traveling in precarious conditions.

“I think folks have to remember to avoid crossing the road in places that might surprise motorists who might have trouble handling their cars under such conditions,” Marsik wrote.

Some students are faced with an even bigger challenge than simply braving the cold and wind. For LSA junior Jed Erwin, getting to class during or after a snowstorm is especially tough. Erwin uses a wheelchair and said it is difficult to get through the snow on sidewalks.

In an interview last year, Erwin said though the University efficiently removes snow from sidewalks, the snow often accumulates on curbs, making it impossible for him to cross roads on his way to class.

“The problem was that after the University cleared all of the sidewalks, snow plows with the city were plowing the streets and that backed the snow up at the curb,” he said.

Though his friends helped to clear paths when they could, Erwin said he often missed class because he physically could not get there.

Jed’s mother, Betsy Erwin, said in an interview last year that her son’s difficulties navigating after a snowstorm are due to the lack of coordination in snow removal between the city and the University, causing snow mounds to accumulate to levels too high for her son to pass.

“The city came through after the University plowed, and when the city came through, they left mounds of snow at the curb’s cuts, and that was Jed’s biggest issue,” she said.

LSA senior Claire Abraham, who has been in a wheelchair since she was four years old, said in an interview last year that she has also faced challenges in the winter.

Commuting from Novi, Mich. during her first two years at the University, Abraham found it difficult to park her van with snow on the ground.

“I have a wheelchair lift on my van, and the lift obviously wouldn’t go down over the snow,” Abraham said.

Abraham lived in Betsy Barbour Residence Hall last year and said the snow on the sidewalks near the residence hall posed a problem for her.

“There is a big pile of snow right (outside), and I can plow through it with my wheelchair pretty easily, but when it’s sitting there for a while it gets kind of hard to plow through it,” Abraham said last year.

Carole Dubritsky, Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for the University, wrote in an e-mail interview that after talking with students on campus, she found that while sidewalks and streets are traversable, large amounts of snowfall around curbs can cause difficulties for disabled students.

“In talking with students, faculty, staff and visitors with disabilities about this issue, they have reported that although UM sidewalks are passable, curb cuts — which are essential for crossing streets for those with disabilities — may become impassable when there has been significant snowfall,” Dubritsky wrote.

The University strives to make snow removal “a priority,” she wrote, and officials go to sites multiples times a day to ensure students have optimal access to sidewalks.

“The University makes every effort to revisit locations receiving the most pedestrian traffic in an effort to keep these intersections and the curb cuts free from snow,” Dubritsky wrote.

She added that disabled students have the option to utilize Paratransit Services, a University company that provides door-to-door transportation during the winter months.

Kirk Pennington, street maintenance field operations supervisor for the city of Ann Arbor, said that the city and the University snow services have “very minimal coordination.”

Pennington said the city’s main responsibilities are to clear city streets including North University Avenue, South University Avenue and State Street. He added that it is the responsibility of property owners, not city plows, to remove snow piles outside the owners’ properties.

John Lawter, associate director of Building Services and Grounds for the University, said the University’s plowing operation functions as a separate entity from the city’s plows.

“It’s two independent operations,” Lawter said. “We don’t call them every time there is a snow.”

However, Lawter said the two operations occasionally share resources. He highlighted the instance a few years ago when the University had a salt shortage and borrowed from the city.

The University is mainly responsible for plowing sidewalks, handicapped ramps, bus stops and other University areas, Lawter said. He added that the University is forced to outsource some of the snow removal to outside contractors.

“We can’t size ourselves to do everything that needs to be done so we do have some contracts out there,” Lawter said.