Illustration by Deshi Deng

Winter Sucks When You Have a Disability

Snow might be a lovely thing for some, but for me and my power wheelchair, it's an immobilizing force.

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Feb 13 2017, 5:00am

Illustration by Deshi Deng

So far, I've used this space to primarily talk about sex and disability issues, from the difficulties of dating with a disability to my complicated feelings on devotees, to the joys (and anxieties) of paying for a sex surrogate. Of course, the challenges of having a disability extend beyond the bedroom, and one thing that's been on my mind lately is the winter and, more specifically, snow.

Normally, when it snows, it's supposed to be a kind of magical, invigorating experience, a blanket of frosty quiet on the world. With the holidays come, additional notions of a White Christmas and the like. But, for disabled people like me, snow is an immobilizing force, rendering us trapped, unable to enjoy the winter wonderland and be sociable like everyone else. With so much of my freedom taken away, it feels as though I'm a prisoner in my own house.

Thankfully, living in Vancouver, I don't often have to deal with it. But when it does happen, like it did in 2008, things can get gnarly. I remember being trapped inside the house for a week straight with access to only my MacBook and TV. At first, it was fun—I was 16, and I liked the idea of snow, looking at the winter wonderland outside. I imagined trekking through and playing in it, having a snowball fight, driving up the street for a chai latte at my local coffee shop. Because of my disability, however, none of these were options.  

I want to be as independent as possible, but I have to remind myself that sometimes asking for help is OK.

This past December, it snowed again, and with it came similar feelings of excitement and frustration. This time, my entertainment was predominantly Netflix and my laptop. Eventually, after a week and several days, I was able to emerge from my house to roam the streets.

Treading in the snow with my power wheelchair, I have to be more alert and aware, to be extra careful to not get stuck. When I do get stuck, my wheels get buried in the snow, and I have to get someone to pull me out. I'm often with a friend who's walking, so he can help, but sometimes it's difficult. I want to be as independent as possible, but I have to remind myself that sometimes asking for help is OK—that's what friends and the people around me are for.

Getting stuck isn't the only problem. When the temperature drops, my cerebral palsy causes my muscles to stiffen up, and it becomes difficult to function. It's important for me to do stretching exercises and go swimming, especially in the winter, so I don't end up turning into a rigid ball. Even the simple act of operating my chair in cold temperatures can be a difficult task. When I start shivering, I can't move or control anything.

I've learned it's best to avoid the coldest days and to travel on snow that is hard-packed. The wheelchair is also a great, literal icebreaker: My chair can plow though small patches and even snow banks. Still, more than a few times, I have felt the wheels lose traction and nearly come crashing down. I know riding through the snow like this is risky, but who doesn't deserve to have a little fun once and a while?

When I was six or so, my parents wanted me to enjoy snow despite my disability. I remember my dad would take me out with a toboggan and all bundled up in a scarf and snowsuit. He would take me to the top of a large, snow-banked hill and, after properly securing me, send me flying, laughing all the way down. My parents would later tell me this laugh was quite infectious. I remember feeling so free like I was floating on air.

For many years, I have mainly relied on a power wheelchair to get around. But when I was little, I remember occasionally using a manual one. My mom and I were living in Victoria, British Columbia, when there was a massive snowfall—a record-breaking 150 centimeters (almost five feet)—so much, in fact, that most people were either stuck or had to dig their way out.

More than a few times, I have felt the wheels lose traction and nearly come crashing down. I know riding through the snow like this is risky, but who doesn't deserve to have a little fun once and a while?

I remember how scared I was, how little I knew of what was happening. We lived in a busy apartment complex, where there was always something going on, but, because of the heavy snowfall, I couldn't see outside, only hear, and this frustrated me. I wanted to just play with my friends. It took three days, but eventually, the sidewalks and streets were cleared enough for me to venture outdoors.

The power wheelchair I use today offers me more freedom and independence than the manual one of my childhood. But, when it snows, I miss my manual one, which was so much lighter and resistant to getting stuck. I could play in the snow, build snowmen, make snow angels—my friends in the apartment complex would often transfer me to the ground for this. Once, they even made me a makeshift catapult so that I could join in their snowball fight. The best part was that I didn't need my parents to hang around. That freedom was magical.

Sometimes I think I just need knobbier tires and maybe a warmer coat, although even if I got them, there would invariably be something else to inhibit my snow-going. One positive of being cooped up is that it's led me to a greater appreciation for the wheelchair that I do have, which is my only form of getting around. It's also given me the time (and motivation) to finally write this column. In the grand scheme of things, I am relatively independent, loved, and lucky, and no amount of snow can change that. 

If you've got questions or would like advice about dating and sex in the disabled community drop us a line, and Spencer will try to address it in a future column.

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