With the Right Preparation, Winter Conditions Need Not Be Dangerous and Disorienting

The legs of a person walking on snow with the aid of a white cane.

“Winter is not a season. It’s an occupation.” -Sinclair Lewis

One look at Sinclair Lewis’ quote and it makes sense that the American writer grew up in Minnesota. Winter weather causes ice and snow, school closings, power outages, car accidents, falls and broken bones. It also should cause planning and extra caution. For people with visual impairments, winter can be a time when Mother Nature conspires with humans to completely change the furniture around.

Take that next bus stop up ahead. The driver is headed past the regular stop a good 10 yards. That’s because the shelter is inaccessible, walled behind a frozen bank of newly plowed snow. The bus doors open for a traveler who is blind and suddenly does not have the familiar orientation that the shelter and surrounding walkways offer in fair weather. Ten yards from the regular stop can become unknown territory.

In wintertime, “one block can vary greatly from the next,” says Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Brent Perzentka of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired. Brent recently completed over 600 hours of Orientation & Mobility training at a leading VA Hospital in Chicago. He says winter conditions “make it harder for a person with visual impairments to keep a straight line.” A stretch of sidewalk may be clear past one house only to disappear beneath moguls of snow and ice past the next one. Crosswalks can be particularly frustrating. Snowplows cover crosswalks with high piles. A well shoveled crosswalk on one side of the street, where the decline into the street is clearly defined and the domes in the pavement are exposed, may not be aligned with the opening of the crosswalk on the other side of the street. Brent calls on homeowners to keep an eye on that alignment when shoveling out crosswalks.

Most municipalities require property owners to clear the entire sidewalk of snow from edge to edge by noon of the day after the snow has stopped falling. Check your own city or town’s ordinance for those specifics. If snow has not been cleared in a timely manner, you can contact your municipality’s office of public works to find out how to file a snow removal complaint. For example, in Madison there is a snow and ice removal complaint form on the Building Inspection page of the city’s website. They’ll send a city building inspector to a business or residence and cite them if they have not removed snow by the deadline.

Meanwhile, Brent has tips for safe winter walking during the months ahead. He says precipitation, particularly snowfall, dampens the sound vibrations a person with vision loss uses in dry conditions to maintain their bearings. This requires cane travelers to be more focused sonically. “Snow tends to distort sounds,” Brent says. “For somebody who relies on sound, that’s one effect wet and snow can have.”

Brent recommends that cane users combine tapping with constant contact on the sidewalk during poor winter conditions. “If the snow accumulates, that really throws a wrench into someone’s travel, especially with a cane because you’re losing that tactile information,” he says. “Paths break away and reappear.” With that in mind Brent recommends using a heavier cane with a smaller tip after snowfall. The heft of the cane combined with the smaller tip can help cut through the snow.

Clothing is a major consideration for the snowy months. Winter clothes keep a person warm, but they can also create unsafe walking conditions for a person with vision loss. Hats cover ears. Gloves can mute tactile information traveling from cane tip to grip. Cane tip movement itself can be limited by a heavy overcoat. Footwear is also an important consideration. Grip is essential. The Council’s Sharper Vision Store sells Yaktrax, a product designed to stretch over the bottom of your shoes or boots to provide extra traction when walking on slippery surfaces. The store also carries a wide assortment of sunglasses that can help cut winter glare, making it easier for those with low vision to navigate snowy, icy landscapes.

Brent also says taking shorter steps and keeping your knees slightly bent can help with balance in slippery conditions.

Finally, Brent recommends being intentional in the weeks ahead. Plan for public transit and ride shares that may run late due to the weather. And stay focused! He says poor winter walking conditions can narrow focus down to more of a step-by-step level of travel at the expense of general orientation and knowing where one is on their route.

We hope that with these tips in mind, you can experience the cold months in Wisconsin more as a Winter Wonderland than a dangerous occupation.

You can find more tips for safe winter walking in this article on our website, published last year.

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