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It snowed this winter.

It really snowed.

It was the sort of winter that my friends from further south talked about a lot when I said I was moving here a few years ago. “Cleveland?  Hope you like snow.”  A call home to talk to my Mom isn’t complete until she asks, “Is there still snow on the ground at your house?” Yes, Mom. There is.

For someone whose understanding of Cleveland in winter is mostly based on watching A Christmas Story, this year was my first experience with real snow. This is our third winter in northeast Ohio. I guess we were due. As residents of Ohio City, we learned that the winds over the lake usually send the lake effect snow east of us. Six inches on the ground in Cleveland Heights might only be a dusting near 25th and Detroit. But this year, the weather patterns were different. Heavy snows fell during the Martin Luther King Day weekend, and again the first week in February. Winds blew drifts that barricaded neighborhood streets and overwhelmed the snowplows. One got stuck on the block behind our house. It was a good day to stay inside, if you could.

Snow and cold are not new to folks in Ohio. It made the news in 2020 when Lake Erie didn’t freeze. Long-time residents recall years when the snow came sooner and stuck around longer. According to the National Weather Service, snow continues to fall, on average, until late March. February is the month with the most snow, averaging between seven and nine inches.  That’s a lot more than I grew up seeing in Kentucky.

Aside from talking about snow or shoveling it, the winter weather provides an opportunity to think about community access. Winter storms brought nearly two feet of snow to my neighborhood between January 16 and February 3. Cold winds piled up drifts that buried sidewalks, blocked entrances and brought traffic to a halt. It was as if the winter storms wiped away a generation of accessibility advances. The wider sidewalks and curb cuts were buried in deep powder. Drifts obscured the view of intersections. The entry to our building was inaccessible, as snow and ice made it difficult to open the lobby entry. Packed ice made entries and stairways treacherous. In the hours after the storm hit, buses and trains were blocked from completing their routes.

The snow affected more than the infrastructure. Deep snow made walking difficult. As city dwellers with a dog, we are used to frequent walks during the day, but the walks took longer, and required a lot more effort, and caution, than our normal routine. The extra layer of clothing we wore to keep out the cold made it harder to see and hear. My glasses would fog, and my hood, scarf and knit cap limited hearing and my field of vision.  My neighbor and I shoveled the entry to our alleyway to clear a path for our cars to get out. Every movement took longer, and required more effort, than it did before the snowfall.

The snow was an inconvenience for me, but it was a real challenge for our Rose Centers Home-Delivered Meals team. Groceries had to make it to our catering kitchen. Our drivers had to make it in to work, and then, navigate snowy streets and icy walkways to deliver meals to homebound clients.  It took a team effort to clear parking lots and walkways and ensure the meals made it out safely. The same challenges faced area senior centers and paratransit programs as they considered the safety of their participants and their staff.

For many older adults, mobility and access challenges are part of everyday life, not just when it snows. Census data suggests that more than 2 in 5 older adults live with some form of disability. Disabilities that make it difficult to walk to the corner, shop at a grocery store, or participate in community events.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 and helped ensure greater access to the community for persons living with disabilities. The law requires “reasonable accommodation” for persons living with disabilities. The ADA helped promote access ramps, curb cuts in sidewalks, changes in crosswalk signals and parking lots. The changes ushered in with the ADA benefitted all people, not just those who identify as living with a disability. The automatic door opener and “no step” entry also make it easier to navigate with a baby stroller, or an armload of groceries.

Beyond the minimum requirements set forth in the ADA, many communities have embraced accessibility as part of planned growth and development. One example is Complete Streets, which considers the needs of all users in the designs of roads and cityscapes. Motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, as well as the residences and business that lie along the paths they take. Good design takes into consideration the needs of all members of the community and promotes complementary and collaborative use. Smart planning promotes economic growth, healthier lifestyles and resilient neighborhoods. Good planning isn’t just for older adults or people with disabilities. It’s good for everyone.

Winter, spring, summer and fall.

Want to learn more about accessibility and community planning?  AARP’s Livable Communities page includes a listing of cities and towns that have adopted age-friendly policies and planning strategies. Many communities in the Greater Cleveland area are listed. Many states have also adopted concepts from Communities for a Lifetime.  Minnesota’s includes a variety of links to resources on aging-in-place, community design and planning. And, the ADA National Network offers information and resources on accessibility in a variety of community settings, training programs and advocacy tools.