The Canadian winter is treacherous for youth who use wheelchairs or walkers finds a Holland Bloorview study published in Disability and Rehabilitation last month.
Researchers interviewed 12 youth aged 15 to 22 who use walkers and power or manual wheelchairs about the challenges they face getting around in winter.
Their comments paint a stark picture:
“In the slush and snow my walker seizes up” explains one participant, who notes that she falls regularly and has broken her leg “more than once.”
From a power wheelchair user: “With public transit sometimes their ramps don’t work…because it’s cold so the hydraulics don’t work…So even if the bus comes, the ramp doesn’t work. So you wait for the next bus. I have times where I waited for four buses.”
Snow-blocked pathways and sidewalks force participants onto the road. One was hit by a car at an intersection when she had to drive on the road because the sidewalk wasn’t plowed.
Most youth can't wear gloves because it impedes their ability to use their walker or wheelchair—so frostbite is a common problem.
One recounted getting stuck on patches of ice and having to wait to ask someone for assistance or call the police. Another was choked when her coat became caught under a wheel.
These extreme conditions led many youth to fear and avoid going out, which made them feel lonely and isolated.
When they did go out, they had to depend more on parents or others to ensure they were safe, whereas in the summer they could go independently.
Participants suggested strategies to help others with mobility devices cope with winter. These included having equipment more frequently maintained to keep it in top working order; paying more attention to conditions of paths and sidewalks and avoiding problem areas; asking a pedestrian about whether a route was hazardous; giving yourself more time to get somewhere; and putting flags and lights on wheelchairs to improve their visibility. To prevent isolation and depression, some participants kept busy in activities like adapted winter or indoor sports. Girls were less likely to participate in adapted sports than boys.
Because heavy winter coats were hard for youth to put on and limited their movement, they suggested wearing layers with a thinner winter coat. Some wore anti-slip boots.
Researchers found that youth with walkers had more serious challenges in the winter than those with wheelchairs, due to smaller wheels on their devices.
Clinicians must ensure youth get proper training on maneuvering their wheelchair or walker, and enlisting mentors may be helpful, researchers said. Expanding clinic times should be considered to recognize the extra time it takes to get to appointments and to leave enough time to assess clients for signs of depression. A winter survival guide could include tips for spotting hazards at street crossings, maintaining wheelchairs, dressing appropriately and recognizing signs of frostbite, as well as a list of adapted local activities.