One of the great things about spending fall in NYC, besides meeting amazing people and having the time to wheel around the city, has been the warm weather. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t happy every day that the weather was significantly warmer in NYC than in Montréal. NYC extended my summer and I am very grateful for that.
But the cold arrived in NYC a few days ago, reminding me of what the next four months have in store for me. Montréal has already received its first centimeters of snow. I am going back to Montréal in less than two weeks. Just in time for winter.
Even if I could stay in NYC, I would not escape winter. Winter doesn’t hit NYC as hard as it hits Montréal, but still. The city has gotten some major snowstorms in the recent years, and it feels like -7 Celsius today.
So the cold has arrived in our cities. It is important to talk about winter because it teams up with ableist cities and socio-political practices to threaten our bodies and fuck up our lives.
During winter 2013, while I was stuck at home, I wrote a paper on the politics of snow in Montréal. I interviewed eight Montrealers who used mobility aids. Many of them bluntly described winter as “the season of dread.” Navigating the city often becomes impossible or too dangerous. Their homes becomes their refuges, keeping them safe from the cold but also isolated from the communities they need/want to be a part of.
I have done interviews with a dozen disabled people living in NYC and most of them told me that winter radically changes their lives. Their winter stories are in many ways similar to those of the Montrealers I have interviewed. They told me that the snow is often plowed onto curb cuts, making them inaccessible. Blind people using a white cane encounter similar problems when navigating the sidewalks.
Some people told me that the snow removal in Manhattan is quite efficient because of the volume of pedestrian traffic. The snow cannot slow down the city. But overall, most people I have interviewed so far are not looking forward to winter because their mobility is significantly restricted. Wheeling or walking from point A to B is often not an option because of the too-long exposure to the cold. The lack of subway accessibility, combined with the cold weather, seriously freezes their capacities to navigate NYC safely. They told me they are often forced to spend a great deal of time at home.
In Montréal, snow removal is a heated (!!!) political issue. Some boroughs have more money than others and remove the snow more efficiently. It is also up to each borough to decide when and where the snow will be removed. For example, one borough once made the choice to suspend regular snow removal operations on weekends in order to avoid getting into more debt. Another borough decided not to remove the snow between the sidewalks and the streets, based on the argument that everyone can plow their way to their car or simply jump the little mountains of snow. This is not something that everybody can do.
Snow becomes political because its management is.
The stories of the people I have in interviewed in Montréal and New York City point to a similar conclusion: winter is the high season for inequalities, and a time when every bit of privilege makes a big difference.
Ableist cities are more dangerous during winter. Montréal and New York both have great underground transit systems that remain largely inaccessible to many disabled people, forcing them to use above-ground transportation. As I mentioned, these people are far more likely to be exposed to the cold for long periods of time because of the inaccessibility of the underground transit system, a broken ramp on a bus (which seems not to the a problem in NYC; the most frequent problem is that the two wheelchair spaces are already taken and we have to wait for the next bus, which can take forever to come) or a paratransit ride that’s running late. Some disabled people are more privileged in the sense that they can afford to own a car or take taxis. However, accessible taxis are still hard – nearly impossible, even¬ – to hail in the two cities. In Montréal, accessible parking spaces are often used as temporary snow dumps.
The capacity to be flexible in terms of time and space is extremely important in our capitalist cities. Winter complicates the performance of that requirement. This has different implications for people, according to how they make a living. Many disabled people have told me that their employers were accommodating and aware of the obstacles they face in winter, while others said that they don’t have access to any accommodations. People with more precarious jobs often don’t have the possibility to work from home or to change their work schedule. People with less visible impairments have told me they have been denied access to services and accommodations that would make winter more accessible.
Personal support networks are another site of inequality. Disabled people’s personal support networks play an important role during winter. Some disabled people can count on the assistance of the people close to them to remove snow so that they can get out of their homes, to get groceries for them or to run other important errands. For others, winter means an increased dependence on abusive partners, family members or personal support workers. The prevalence of domestic violence experienced by disabled people is horribly high.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of problems faced by disabled people during winter. It is just an imperfect attempt at showing how winter completely changes time and space in ways that affect disabled people differently, according to the socio-economical conditions they live in.
Winter is not a season of dread for all. Our cities know how to make it a profitable and enjoyable season too. We have winter festivals, underground cities and lots of indoor entertainment options. But as the experiences of disabled people tell us, these activities are not for everyone.
In Montréal, winter is part of the city’s culture. It is part of my identity. I honestly get genuinely excited when I see the first snowflakes. I also love having to stay at home on major snow days. Cold, snowy winters are part of a culture that I often have the privilege to feel at home in, even though I am excluded from so many aspects of it. My experience of winter clearly plays a major role in my sense of belonging in Montréal.
It is important to think about who winter belongs to, and why. What does it mean to be excluded from our cold and snowy cities? What does it tell us about our cities?