When it comes to navigating winter weather conditions, wheelchair users face a unique set of challenges. Hazards like slippery surfaces, reduced visibility, and mobility barriers can limit access and even lead to life-threatening emergencies.
The good news is that you can protect yourself and your mobility with the right information and preparation. Below are 8 tips to help wheelchair users stay safe and protected in the midst of winter’s worst.
Do you have a winter safety issue that needs help right away? Contact your local accessibility experts at Next Day Access. We’ll meet with you for a FREE in-home consultation to understand your needs and offer solutions based on 25 years in the business.
1. Prepare your home for both the expected and the unexpected
Preparation is one of the most important actions you can take to stay safe during winter weather, beginning with your home. Home is the place where you’ll warm up from the cold after time spent outside. It might even become your shelter during an emergency.
Home is the place where you’ll warm up from the cold after time spent outside in winter weather. It might even become your shelter during an emergency.
You should make an emergency plan in case you lose access to power and transportation for an extended amount of time. The truth is, there are news reports every year describing power outages that impact millions of people. Winter storms can also disrupt heating, communications services, and transportation access for days or weeks at a time.
Consider the following questions:
- In the event of a power outage, is your home insulated enough to retain heat?
- Do you know how to keep your pipes from freezing?
- Are your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors installed, tested, and equipped with battery backups?
- Do you have an emergency plan and kits for your house, vehicle, and wheelchair?
The ADA National Network recommends preparing home emergency kits with enough supplies to last two weeks. This is especially important for wheelchair users who may experience longer delays as a result of disruptions to accessible routes, transportation, and home delivery services.
For more information on home emergency preparedness, check out this article from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Ready campaign.
You can also contact your local accessibility experts at Next Day Access for a FREE in-home consultation. We’ll help you to identify safety issues in the event of severe winter weather, and provide options that support your safety and wellbeing.
2. Keep your paths, ramps, and lifts free of ice and snow
It is very important to maintain a clear route and access point to your home. First, an accessible route allows you to leave your home if necessary. If your home is losing heat or you need medical attention, it will make all the difference to have paths, ramps, and lifts cleared of ice and snow.
Make snow and ice removal part of your winter weather emergency plan.
As part of your winter weather emergency plan, decide how you will manage snow removal on your property. If you handle snow removal yourself, how will you handle a loss of traction on ice or getting stuck in the snow? Will you hire a snow plow driver? Will you ask a relative, neighbor, or attendant to help?
By planning in advance, you can avoid the frustration of being stuck at home–not to mention the safety risks. Whatever approach you choose, make sure to clear all mobility barriers from your door to your mode of transportation.
Aluminum ramps require little maintenance and offer durable, non-skid surfaces to access your home.
The good news is that our modular ramps require little maintenance–if any. We’re proud to offer ramp systems that comply with ADA guidelines. According to the ADA, ramps should be “designed to prevent the accumulation of water” and “firm, stable, and slip-resistant.”
Our ramps are made of aluminum, which allows the tread to surface to warm at a quicker rate than other materials. This makes aluminum a smart choice in colder climates with snow and ice accumulation. Our ramps feature a unique extruded non-skid surface that helps maintain traction, whether on foot or wheels.
Aluminum is an ultra durable material. Our 100% aluminum ramps will withstand routine shoveling and maintenance without damage.
Our 100% aluminum ramps will withstand routine shoveling and maintenance without damage.
We recommend that you remove any snow and ice that accumulates on your ramp after each snowfall. With light accumulation, you can simply sweep the tread surface clean. During heavier snowfalls, you can shovel the snow before sweeping.
If you still need to remove residual snow or ice, our ramps will tolerate a sparing amount of ice melting products. Depending on your needs, you can find multiple options advertised to be both vegetation and pet-friendly.
Vertical platform lifts (VPL) will work through winter weather with routine maintenance.
Vertical platform lifts (VPL)–also called porch lifts–offer vertical access as an alternative to ramp systems. Our VPLs will work through cold and wet weather conditions and include the following features:
- All-weather controls
- Non-slip surfaces
- Specialized coating
- Heating kits for improved functioning in extreme cold
In the event of a power outage at home, our VPLs include emergency backup power sources that maintain access to your home. Emergency stop switches can be triggered automatically or manually in case your VPL comes into contact with an unexpected snow drift or other obstruction.
If your ramp is outdoors, we recommend that you remove accumulated snow and ice with a shovel or broom after each snowfall. You should also clear snow and ice on the path and beneath the lift to prevent obstruction sensors from triggering.
You might also consider installing your VPL in a protected space such as your garage or under an overhang to limit snow and ice accumulation.
The safest wheelchair ramp or VPL is installed and serviced by a professional.
Whether you use a ramp or VPL, make sure you choose a professional for installation. Your local accessibility experts at Next Day Access are factory-trained and know exactly how to build your ramp or lift so that it lasts.
If you use a VPL, ask a professional to service your lift at least once per year. We can help you identify potential safety issues and create a maintenance plan that keeps you moving all year round.
For more information on maintaining your wheelchair ramps and lifts (VPLs), contact your local accessibility experts at Next Day Access.
3. Winterize your car
During a severe winter storm, road conditions can deteriorate rapidly. Every winter motorists are stranded when they become stuck in ice or snow, traffic pileups, or whiteout conditions. In more serious cases, help can take days to arrive.
Assemble a car emergency kit with supplies that last at least 72 hours, and make sure you have at least a half tank of gas at all times.
Assemble a car emergency kit for winter weather with supplies that last at least 72 hours, and make sure you have at least a half tank of gas at all times.
While assembling your car emergency kit, you should also prepare your car for a winter weather emergency. Before the start of the winter season, ask a mechanic to make sure your car is winter ready. Ask mechanics to check out the following:
- Ignition and exhaust systems
- Fuel and air filters
- Heater and defroster
- Lights, including emergency flashers
- Windshield wipers and fluid
- Auto lift or ramp
For more information on car emergency preparedness, check out this article from the Ready campaign.
4. Make your wheelchair winter weather-ready
Preparing your wheelchair for winter weather goes beyond the threat of severe weather. Even everyday wintertime occurrences like precipitation, cold, and ice can lead to an emergency.
Fortunately, some basic precautions can help you to navigate winter wonderlands, headline-making storms, and anything in between.
Prepare a carry-with-you emergency kit that lasts at least 24 hours. Additionally, make sure your wheelchair is winter ready with a tune up. Check your power connectors, brakes, and hardware to verify everything is working as it should.
Make sure your wheelchair is winter weather-ready with a tune up. Check your power connectors, brakes, and hardware to verify everything is working as it should.
You can also consider the following modifications to improve accessibility and safety in winter weather:
- Increase visibility on your chair by adding lights or reflective tape
- Boost traction by installing winter tires or all-terrain tires
- Improve your grip with snow chains, studs, wheel blades, or removable tire covers
- Fully charge your battery and take shorter trips–batteries drain faster in cold and slippery conditions
- Protect your joystick from water damage with a joystick cover or plastic bag
- Strengthen stability with anti-tip devices
When you go outside in your wheelchair, make sure to avoid standing water that might cause damage to your electronics. If your wheelchair has been exposed to water while outside, make sure to dry off your chair thoroughly once indoors.
For more information on preparing your wheelchair for winter, check out this great article from the ADA National Network. The ADA National Network offers an emergency kit checklist that is specific to people with disabilities.
5. Stay vigilant against hypothermia and frostbite–no matter where you live
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hypothermia and frostbite are types of cold-related illnesses and injuries that occur as a result of exposure to cold and/or water.
Most people associate these conditions with freezing temperatures. The truth is, you can experience cold-related illnesses and injuries in environments as warm as 60°F. Since nearly every part of the country sees these temperatures during the year, it is important to understand cold-related illnesses and injuries.
The truth is, you can experience cold-related illnesses and injuries from winter weather in environments as warm as 60°F.
The risks for cold-related illnesses and injuries will increase when the following conditions apply:
- Longer exposure times
- Getting wet from rain, sleet, snow, or sweat
- Lack of food, clothing, or shelter
- Limited physical mobility
What should wheelchair users know about hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a potentially life-threatening condition in which your body cannot generate heat faster than the rate of heat loss. Defined as a body temperature lower than 96°F, hypothermia can disrupt the normal functioning of multiple organs and systems.
Symptoms of hypothermia can include:
- Severe shivering
- Slurred speech
- Loss of coordination
- Feeling overheated
Wheelchair users face increased risks of hypothermia for several reasons. Due to limited physical mobility, you may generate less heat and subsequently lose heat at a faster rate.
If you have a spinal cord injury (SCI), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and other central nervous system disorder (CNS), your body may struggle to warm up, cool down, or maintain a stable core body temperature. This process is called “thermoregulation.”
Typically, thermoregulation helps the body to maintain a core temperature around 98.6°F. That’s the reason people will sweat when it’s hot, and shiver when it’s cold.
However, this process might be impaired if you have a SCI, TBI, or CNS disorder. Signals between your body and brain may work differently. For example, you might shiver when the room doesn’t feel cold or touch a hot surface without feeling burned.
The same concept applies to your vascular system. Your brain might not tell your blood vessels to constrict in the cold, especially below the site of an injury. As a result, you may experience a faster rate of body heat loss and lower core body temperatures.
Impaired regulation is a significant reason why many wheelchair users face an increased risk of hypothermia.
Impaired regulation is a significant reason why many wheelchair users face an increased risk of hypothermia.
In suspected cases of hypothermia, seek medical help immediately.
What should wheelchair users know about frostbite?
Frostbite is a condition in which your skin becomes damaged by exposure to freezing air.
The Mayo Clinic lists three stages of frostbite:
- Frostnip: this is a reversible condition in which the superficial levels of skin experience freezing. Symptoms may include numbness, skin discoloration, and tingling or pain when the skin warms.
- Superficial frostbite: this is an injury to superficial levels of the skin that may involve symptoms associated with frostnip as well as burning and swelling. Your skin might look discolored and even develop a blister within a day or two of the injury.
- Severe frostbite: this is an injury to deep levels of the skin and underlying tissues. Your skin might turn white or blue gray and you may lose sensation entirely. You may develop blisters after the injury, as well as tissue death and loss.
Frostbite is connected to the wind chill. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), wind chill is a measurement that factors both temperature and wind speed to describe how a person “feels” in cold weather. Weather experts use wind chills to identify the “rate of heat loss from exposed skin” and make the public aware of potential hazards and threats during cold weather.
The NWS has three types of wind chill alerts:
- Wind chill watches signal “seasonably cold” weather. During a wind chill watch, the NWS recommends people dress warm and cover exposed skin.
- Wind chill advisories signal the potential for “dangerously cold” weather. During a wind chill advisory, the NWS recommends people avoid the outdoors during the coldest times of day, keep their gas tanks half full at a minimum, and double check their emergency supply kits.
- Wind chill warnings signal “expected or occurring” life-threatening cold weather. During a wind chill warning, NWS recommends people stay inside and avoid travel altogether. If travel cannot be avoided, the NWS recommends that people dress warm, cover exposed skin, and inform at least one other person of their whereabouts.
Dangerously low wind chills can cause both hypothermia and frostbite. When wind chills are low, stay vigilant against symptoms of frostbite and pay careful attention to your extremities. Fingers, toes, cheeks, and ears are especially susceptible to frostbite.
When wind chills are low, stay vigilant against symptoms of frostbite and pay careful attention to your extremities.
This is especially important if you have sensory loss, as you might not feel tingling or burning in affected areas. Frostbitten skin may also feel cold and hard to the touch.
In the event of frostbite, seek medical attention immediately. Frostbite can result in irreversible damage to nerves and tissues, as well as infection. Frostbite can also be associated with cases of hypothermia.
Check out the CDC’s helpful infographic for more information on spotting, avoiding, and treating both hypothermia and frostbite.
What should wheelchair users know about other cold-related injuries and illnesses?
The CDC also lists immersion foot and chilblains as cold-related injuries that can occur in temperatures up to 60°F.
Immersion foot, formerly called trench foot, occurs when feet are exposed to cold, wet conditions for an extended length of time. According to Cleveland Clinic, immersion foot typically requires 1 to 3 days of exposure but can occur in as little as 10 to 14 hours.
Symptoms of immersion foot include:
- Reddened or discolored skin
- Leg cramps
Chilblains is a condition that occurs when skin is exposed repeatedly to cold, above-freezing temperatures. The result is permanent damage to skin that is prone to redness, itching, and inflammation.
For more information on treating immersion foot and chilblains, check out this article by the CDC.
6. Understand the connection between cold temperatures and autonomic dysreflexia (AD)
What is AD and what are the symptoms?
If you have a spinal cord injury (SCI), you should be aware of the connection between extremely cold weather and autonomic dysreflexia (AD). AD is a potentially life-threatening episode of hypertension that requires immediate medical attention. The condition usually occurs in people with SCIs above level T6, as the result of stimuli below the injury site.
Symptoms of AD may include:
- Severe headache
- Spike in blood pressure
- Change in heart rate
- Profuse sweating
- Nausea or vomiting
What should wheelchair users know about AD and winter weather?
While the vast majority of AD episodes occur as a result of “noxious stimulus” like a full bladder, blocked catheter, or UTI, cold temperatures are a known risk factor for AD.
Cold temperatures are a known risk factor for autonomic dysreflexia (AD).
“Nurse Linda” Schulz from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation offers the following insights about how wheelchair users at risk for AD can protect themselves in winter weather:
- Dress appropriately indoors and outdoors
- Limit your time in cold weather
- Stay in temperature-controlled environments as much as possible
What should I do if I think I have AD?
In suspected cases of AD, call 911 or seek medical help immediately. A fast response is very important. You can learn more about the treatment for AD from the Reeve Foundation, including steps to take when medical help is not immediately available.
7. Protect yourself by staying warm, dry, and hydrated
There are many steps you can take to protect yourself during winter weather. While inside, make sure you’re dressed warm, eating well, and staying hydrated. While clothing, food, and water are necessities for everyone, wheelchair users will especially benefit by making heat production and retention easier.
While clothing, food, and water are necessities for everyone, wheelchair users will especially benefit by making heat production and retention easier.
If you spend time outdoors, take care to limit your time outside. Wheelchair batteries drain more quickly in the cold–you don’t want to get stuck! Make sure you’re dressed in appropriate clothes for the cold, and even consider additional layering like blankets.
Once you’re back inside, make sure to remove extra layers so your body can adjust to the indoor temperature. If you have any wet clothes, remove them and replace them with dry clothes. If your chair was exposed to water, make sure you give yourself and your chair time to dry out fully–including your cushion, if applicable.
If you get chilled or wet outside, consider the following steps:
- Get into a warm environment
- Warm affected areas using boyd heat or warm (not hot!) water
- Remove wet clothing and dry off
- Layer up in warm clothes or blankets
- Drink a warm beverage
- Exercise, including passive range of motion
- Seek medical attention as soon as possible
- DO NOT walk, stand, or apply pressure to injured feet or toes
- DO NOT massage or rub injured areas
- DO NOT use electric blankets, heaters, or any other heat source that could cause a burn
Please note: these tips are not a substitute for medical advice and are meant for informational purposes only. If you suspect you might have hypothermia, frostbite, or another cold-related condition, seek medical attention immediately.
8. Make a winter weather emergency plan
Your winter weather emergency plan covers your bases for a variety of circumstances. By having a strong plan in place, you can better protect yourself and respond in the event of an emergency.
By having a strong plan in place, you can better protect yourself and respond in the event of an emergency.
An emergency plan should outline responses to the following:
- Regular snow and ice accumulation
- Shelter-in-place orders
- Power outages
- Evacuation orders
- Vehicle emergencies
- Wheelchair emergencies, indoors and outdoors
The Ready campaign recommends you prepare an emergency plan that may include:
- Emergency supplies
- Support network of people who will help you
- Accessible transportation options
- Identifying yourself on voluntary registries for targeted assistance during disasters and power restoration during outages
- Alternative medical facilities that can help you if your primary choice is unavailable
- Storing medical information on your mobile phone or printed out in a waterproof bag
- Wearing a medical device tag or bracelet
- Alternative assistive devices if you lose or damage your primary devices
- Storing copies of important documents in a waterproof bag
- Plans for household members, including pets or support animals
For more information on emergency preparedness for people with disabilities, check out this article from the Ready campaign.
Want help? Don’t hesitate to ask
We hope this article has provided helpful information about winter safety! Please note that this article is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. We advise you to consult with your healthcare provider about recommended winter safety approaches to your home, vehicle, and wheelchair–as well as yourself.
If you want help deciding how to improve winter safety at your home, we’re here for you.
Contact your local accessibility experts at Next Day Access for a free consultation and estimate. We’ll help you to identify safety solutions that offer you peace of mind and protection all winter long.