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Wheelchair Users Say They Are Forgotten In Blizzard Cleanup Efforts

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Residents shoveled sidewalks after last week's blizzard, but many curb cuts and bus stops are still impassable for those in wheelchairs.
Rachel Hatzipanagos/WAMU
Residents shoveled sidewalks after last week's blizzard, but many curb cuts and bus stops are still impassable for those in wheelchairs.

Wheelchair users say that in the aftermath of the Jan. 23 blizzard, they were an afterthought in snow cleanup efforts, as curb cuts remains buried in snow, bus stops blocked, and alleys impassable while road crews prioritized clearing the roads.

The responsibility under D.C. law to shovel curb cuts lies with the adjacent property owner, whether a homeowner, business, or public building. With large snow banks everywhere, an open curb usually is the only way a wheelchair user can get on or off the sidewalk. But even when curbs are shoveled after the initial snows, passing plows just cover them up again with mounds of snow.

“The curb cut issues don’t get addressed in the strategic cleanup that the city does,” said Ian Watlington, a disability rights worker and motorized wheelchair user. “All I am asking, and I think most people with disabilities are asking, is to be part of the strategic…conversation of, what are we going to do once that plow passes?”

Watlington was holed up in his Columbia Heights apartment for most of last week. In the first days after the storm, he could not call a wheelchair-accessible car service because there was no space for the vehicle to pull up to the curb and lower its ramp. Later, when he was able to be driven around, he found curb cuts blocked all around Washington.

“Any kind of mobility issue makes it ten times harder,” said Watlington, who has had cerebral palsy since birth.

Thomas Mangrum had a different snow-related issue. Whether the sidewalks were cleared outside his small home in Northeast D.C. mattered less than the condition of the alley out back. His wheelchair ramp descends into the alley. Blanketed in snow, he was unable to roll his wheelchair some 30 yards to the street where he might have been picked up by paratransit service. The District does not plow alleys.

“I got to wait until the snow melts or somebody comes over and shovels me out, because people would do that for me,” said a deflated Mangrum after seven days shut in. Fortunately, over the weekend, friends finally were able to shovel a path for him.

“I had to cancel all of my doctor’s appointments because I am trapped in my house,” said Mangrum, who suffers from spinal problems. “I have been living in my house for 17 years and that is usually what I have to do.”

The Department of Public Works did not respond to questions about curb cuts, but a spokeswoman did release a statement:

"Clearing snow from District streets still is a work in progress. Every day we accomplish more, but we cannot say the job is finished. Our goal is to completely reopen all lanes on all streets as quickly as possible. It is a major undertaking and we appreciate the public’s patience."

Given the enormous amount of snow from the two-day storm, Watlington said he did not expect clear walkways and curbs overnight. However, he said the District made no effort to ensure curb cuts were snow-free, either by fining property owners who failed to shovel them or adjusting their plowing practices.

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